When Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, disclosed details about some of the clandestine electronic surveillance programs run by the intelligence agencies of the United States government in June, it was widely seen as one of the biggest intelligence leaks in American history. The Guardian, the British paper Snowden leaked the information to, saw record surges in web traffic as it published his exposés. Its main article on Edward Snowden, in which the paper declared that Snowden “will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers,” has become the most popular article ever read on the website, with over 3.7 million page impressions and counting according to the Guardian.
But, three months later, it’s difficult to see how consequential Snowden’s revelations have actually been. Despite immediate and widespread interest from the news media and diplomatic backlash from some parts of the world (mainly from foreign officials who found out that the U.S. had been intercepting their communications), the allegations of widespread spying conducted through the NSA’s PRISM program have not become the subject of any successful legislative efforts in Congress–an initial attempt in July to cut the NSA’s funding for its phone metadata program fell flat after a narrow defeat. And in some parts of the world, responses beyond the immediate surprise caused by the revelations have been particularly muted, with some British and French politicians suggesting that there was nothing in the leaks to cause the general public any concern. Some politicians, such as Conservative Member of Parliament David Davis, questioned if there was adequate oversight of intelligence operations. But in general, Europeans have shrugged and moved on.
Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that in Germany the nation’s intelligence agencies were working closely with the NSA on allowing the Americans to monitor Internet traffic, e-mails and telephone calls of German citizens. The German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, falls directly under the Chancellor’s office, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has denied any knowledge of the arrangement. Was there national outrage at the collusion, in a country still highly sensitive to issues of surveillance and state-control? On the contrary, although Merkel faced protests about the NSA leaks during her recent re-election campaign she won a larger share of the vote than she had in her previous two victories.
In Britain, where one of its three intelligence bodies, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has allegedly been running what Snowden called “the largest program of suspicion-less surveillance in human history” which aims to collect all online and telephone traffic, the debate has been quieter still. This is despite the outrage expressed by free speech groups and high-profile writers such as Stephen Fry, who recently lent his name to a letter addressed to European leaders to take a stand against spying by U.S. and British intelligence agencies.
“It’s astonishing to see how many Britons blindly and uncritically trust the work of their intelligence service,” writes journalist Christoph Scheuermann in a commentary for the German paper Der Spiegel. British journalist Henry Porter, writing in the Guardian, is also surprised by the response: “All summer I have been puzzling over the lack of reaction in Britain to the Snowden revelations about U.S. and U.K. communications surveillance, a lack that at some moments has seemed even more remarkable than the revelations themselves.”
John Kampfner, a British journalist and former chief executive of the U.K.-based civil liberties campaign group, Index on Censorship, says that the British reaction has been informed by an underlying trust in the government, one which has bred “a sense of anaesthetized comfort. What’s the problem when you have a nice smiling Queen and James Bond is popular?” Studies have shown that since the 1990s, support for civil liberties in Britain have declined as increasing numbers of people have erred towards a tougher stance on law and order, particularly when the issue is presented as a choice between individual freedoms and preventing terrorism.
In the aftermath of the revelations some politicians were swift to assure the public that the data-mining operations run by intelligence agencies are not an issue people should be concerned about. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, told the BBC in June: “The net effect is that if you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business and personal life, you have nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the content of your phone calls or anything like that.”
Kampfner says that Hague, when he spoke to British parliamentarians about GCHQ’s activities, got a fairly easy ride as other politicians failed to “pose him a single informed question.” He cites occasions where he has been in meetings with politicians who appear to be out of their depth on matters of the Internet and data surveillance: “It is often quite embarrassing how little they understand.” Julian Huppert, a Liberal Democrat MP who has campaigned on issues of protecting digital privacy, agrees with Kampfner’s suggestion that some MPs are unable to effectively scrutinise the legitimacy of the digital surveillance operations run by GCHQ and the NSA if “there is a general lack of understanding…about the way the Internet works. When those in power don’t understand the basics it’s very concerning”.
Claude Moraes, a British member of the European Parliament and the appointed liaison officer for the parliament’s inquiry into snooping, says that this is just “lazy stereotyping.” Moraes argues that on a European level at least, politicians have been well aware of issues of data privacy and spying even prior to the reporting on Snowden’s revelations. Intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Britain has been ongoing for decades, and prior to PRISM, the European Parliament published an in-depth report on Echelon, a global system for intercepting personal and commercial communications between the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Now that Snowden is living in relative obscurity in Moscow, the media interest in him has quieted down despite new stories continuing to emerge of the extent of the NSA’s spying. The European Parliament will publish a report into its enquiry before the end of the year. But it is yet to be determined whether its report and Snowden’s revelations will have the impact he hoped, or if it will become another footnote in the long history of clandestine spying operations.