PressThink: The Snowden Effect

 

The Snowden Effect: Definition and Examples

It’s about what he set in motion by taking the action he did.

By Jay Rosen, July 5 2013.

The Snowden effect, a definition:

Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.

Meaning: there’s what Snowden himself revealed by releasing secrets and talking to the press. But beyond this, there is what he set in motion by taking that action. Congress and other governments begin talking in public about things they had previously kept hidden. Companies have to explain some of their dealings with the state. Journalists who were not a party to the transaction with Snowden start digging and adding background. Debates spring to life that had been necessary but missing before the leaks. The result is that we know much more about the surveillance state than we did before. Some of the opacity around it lifts. This is the Snowden effect.

It is good for public knowledge. And public knowledge is supposed to be what a free press and open debate are all about.

Notes, links and examples: (updated several times after July 5)

1. As reported on July 4:

Days after President François Hollande sternly told the United States to stop spying on its allies, the newspaper Le Monde disclosed on Thursday that France has its own large program of data collection, which sweeps up nearly all the data transmissions, including telephone calls, e-mails and social media activity, that come in and out of France. (Le Monde.)

So the Snowden effect is international. Canada, for example. Or Brazil.

2. On July 3, Reuters reported on the “long history of close cooperation between technology companies and the intelligence community.”

Former U.S. officials and intelligence sources say the collaboration between the tech industry and spy agencies is both broader and deeper than most people realize, dating back to the formative years of Silicon Valley itself.

similar story ran in the New York Times on June 19. It told of “the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the [NSA] and the degree to which they are now in the same business.”

3. In a superb story by four reporters on June 15, the Associated Press expanded the frame:

The revelation of Prism this month by the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers has touched off the latest round in a decade-long debate over what limits to impose on government eavesdropping, which the Obama administration says is essential to keep the nation safe.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.

4. Expanding the frame in a different way, the McClatchy Washington bureau reported on the Obama Administration’s extremely aggressive crackdown on leaks: (June 20)

President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide.

“This has gotten scant public attention; let’s remedy that.” So goes the Snowden effect.

5. On June 15 Bloomberg reported that “thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence.”

These programs, whose participants are known as trusted partners, extend far beyond what was revealed by Edward Snowden, a computer technician who did work for the National Security Agency.

6. Two days ago, a report in the New York Times explained how Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall are “trying to force intelligence officials to provide answers for the public record” about matters already familiar to them from secret briefings given to Congress. The key phrase is “answers for the public record.” That is the core of the Snowden effect. (More on this.)

7. On June 25, the National Security Agency had to take down two fact sheets it had posted online after Wyden and Udall complained that they contained misinformation. The documents were themselves an example of the Snowden effect, as Politico reported:

The documents, still available here, were published in the wake of revelations about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs. They sought to highlight the safeguards the NSA uses to make sure American communications aren’t caught up in its surveillance — or if they are, what the NSA does to remove identifying information about U.S. citizens.

In other words, the NSA – often called the most secretive agency in the government – felt it had to explain itself. This is good for public knowledge. Two U.S. Senators then fact checked the NSA, which is even better.

8. Jack Shafer of Reuters predicted the Snowden effect in his June 8 column. “This will now fuel new cycles of reporting, leaks and scoops — and another, and another — as new sources are cultivated and reportorial scraps gathering mold in journalists’ notebooks gain new relevance and help break stories.” He was right.

9. Did you know that the United States Postal Service “computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year?” I did not. The New York Times reported on it July 3rd. As Ethan Zuckerman notes, the Smoking Gun website had the story on June 7 but few  saw it. The Snowden effect works like that. It widens the circle of people who know, even if the knowledge had been available before.

10. On the front page of the New York Times, Scott Shane reported on a kind a “parallel Supreme Court,” FISA, making new and consequential law in secret. This brought a discussion that had taken place on legal blogs to a much wider public. The Wall Street Journal followed up the next day with more details.

A final note: The Snowden effect is far more important than the Snowdon saga, meaning: the story of what happens to him as the United States pursues his capture and arrest, plus what comes out about his background and motivations. But I would not call his personal story a “distraction” from the real story. That’s not right. Who he is, what kind of access he had, why he did what he did, and even the arguments about whether he’s a disloyal creep or a profile in courage are inescapably part of the larger story and the public debate it has triggered. (Read Matt Cooper of National Journal on this issue.) You can’t wish for more public attention to the surveillance state and then scoff at one of the means by which people come to the larger story, which is his story. But I repeat what I said: the Snowden effect is ultimately more important than the Snowdon saga. 

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

On June 17, President Obama said he wanted a “national conversation” on the NSA’s collection of data. Slowly, haltingly, and with great difficulty he is getting it– because of the Snowden effect.

First use of the term “Snowden effect” that I can find is by Esquire’s Charles Pierce here. Also see his follow-up.

Whether he likes it or not, this is the ‘national conversation’ that the president said he wanted. Edward Snowden, world traveler, international man of luggage, made it impossible to avoid.

The Snowden effect is well captured in the public hearings before the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The hearings are one of Obama’s responses to the sense of public alarm created by Snowden’s original revelations. They are starting to produce:

A former federal judge who granted government surveillance requests has broken ranks to criticise the system of secret courts as unfit for purpose in the wake of recent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

July 10: Scott Shane of the New York Times reports on the Snowden effect:

It is still unclear whether Mr. Snowden, the 30-year-old former N.S.A. contractor now holed up at a Moscow airport, will escape punishment. But he has succeeded in opening the government spying’s trade-offs between civil liberties and security to the broadest and best-informed public debate in many years, even as intelligence officials are horrified at the exposure of their methods and targets.

Underneath all this is a troubling question: can there even be an informed public and thus “consent of the governed” for the national security state? Or have we in effect done away with those concepts? This essay by Will Wilkinson in the Economist is the best thing I have read on that subject:

You see, democracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security, and it is simply too dangerous to leave the question of this balance to the democratic public. Open deliberation over the appropriate balance would require saying something concrete about threats to public safety, and also about the means by which those threats might be checked. But revealing such information would only empower America’s enemies and endanger American lives. Therefore, this is a discussion Americans can’t afford to have.

This post was chewed over by a panel of observers on MSNBC: Debating the Snowden Effect.

Reuters: Latin American nations fuming over NSA spying allegations.

Yahoo is fighting for the right to reveal its struggle with the NSA over demands that the company said it resisted. The court documents are currently secret.

In a rare legal move, Yahoo is asking a secretive U.S. surveillance court to let the public see its arguments in a 2008 case that played an important role in persuading tech companies to cooperate with a controversial government data-gathering effort.

“Let the public see its arguments.” That’s the Snowden effect.

Two related PressThink posts on the NSA story:

Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. Neither dominates. (June 13)

David Gregory tries to read Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian out of the journalism club (June 24.)

 

See Jay Rosen, The Snowden Effect, PressThink, July 5 2013.

(Emphasis added)