March 7, 2017
In the end, what kind of change did Edward J. Snowden bring about? In the realm of privacy protection, not much—at least so far. For all the talk on Capitol Hill in the summer of 2013—immediately after the Snowden leaks—about a reassessment of the balance between security and privacy rights, no significant legal changes to the authorities of the National Security Agency or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have passed Congress since the Snowden leaks.
The biggest change in NSA practice ordered by President Barack Obama—his announcement in January 2014 that the government would get out of the business of amassing a vast database of metadata for all the telephone calls made into or out of the United States—finally went into effect at the end of 2015. It gets the government out of the business of retaining the call records of Americans and puts that responsibility on the telecommunications firms. They were reluctant and had to be compelled (and paid) by the government to play this role. Some intelligence officials (and a few candidates for president) have complained that the change will make it harder for the United States to track terrorist communications. But they forget that the NSA itself had considered, at various points, giving up the metadata collection because it was yielding so little.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is a chapter in Journalism After Snowden: The Future of Free Press in the Surveillance State, a recently released book from Columbia University Press. The book was part of the Journalism After Snowden initiative, a yearlong series of events and projects from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in collaboration with CJR. The initiative is funded by The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Also read contributions to the book from Alan Rusbridger, Clay Shirky, and Jill Abramson—and Emily Bell’s interview with Edward Snowden.