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The Anniversary of Snowden's First Leaks Is No Time to Celebrate

New initiatives launch to protect privacy, but Snowden's whistle-blowing is the most radical response to the surveillance state to date.

by Natasha Lennard
Jun 6 2014, 7:25pm

Image via Flickr/Free Speech

June 5th, 2014 marked the one year anniversary of the first revelations from Edward Snowden's trove of leaked NSA documents coming to light. That day last year, the true scope of our contemporary surveillance society burst into public view. The initial revelations about the NSA's PRISM program pulled the government's skeleton out of the closet. The string of reports that followed essentially added flesh. Now, after a year of reports, the body of information proving a state of totalized surveillance is bulging.

There has been ample outrage drummed up after every major NSA leak in the last year: There was outrage about dragnet metadata collection, there was outrage about spying on foreign ally leaders, there was outrage about the total surveillance of the Bahamas and Afghanistan. But, like so many points of data pouring into NSA collections, most of this outrage has for the most part simply amassed. It is fair to assume, with a year of devastating revelations behind us, that Snowden's leaks will not prompt an uprising, or some mass luddite movement.

There is something telling about the recognition of this anniversary. It suggests that the publication of the leaks has itself been the most significant aspect of the NSA stories this year. And certainly, Snowden's whistle-blowing deserves ample appreciation and recognition. But in marking this anniversary, there seems to me to be some tacit acknowledgement that the leaks have not prompted anything more radical or significant than themselves. The leaks have been the event. Responses to them have been by comparison uneventful.

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Tucked between the lines of so many revelations was the message that total surveillance could not be avoided. Indeed, if you're reading this, you too are a subject of advanced techo-capitalism; a node in the vast network of cyber-connectivity. We have not put down our smartphones, we have not closed our screens. A feeble NSA reform bill grows weaker and weaker as it snakes through congress. If this time last year was defined by shock at our Brave New World revealed, this year is marked more by resignation, peppered with some quiet resistance. Snowden's leaks have delivered a one-two punch: Proof of shadowy and mendacious government activity and (the knock out) the realization that the very ways we operate in contemporary society have made this state of surveillance possible. As I wrote in The New Inquiry, while we did not consent to being spied upon, "to sidestep our tacit complicity in this would be to fail to recognize how deep it runs—it’s how we live."

On the anniversary of Snowden's first published leaks a new initiative launched, giving shape to what the fight against mass surveillance might look like. Appropriately, after a year of leaks, this new effort is routed in the assumption and understanding of surveillance as totalized. A cohort of civil liberties organizations and tech firms, including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit and Boing Boing, launched "Reset The Net" — an anti-surveillance initiative with more promise than any government NSA-reform efforts. The online initiative aims to spread and generalize the use of encryption and better privacy practices. "Spy agencies like the NSA can hack anyone, but they can't hack everyone" stated the Reset The Net release. It is predicated on the idea that if more people employ better privacy measures to their online communications, the harder the work becomes for the NSA to carry out dragnet spying. If effective, the initiative could put a spanner in the works of the mass surveillance machine.

Reset The Net's birth is an appropriate anniversary marker on Snowden Day (as it was dubbed). The effort recognizes that the beast of corporate-government surveillance will not be swiftly slain, but can be defanged and slowed. If it becomes standard practice for Internet denizens to use basic encryption tools, mass surveillance becomes a vastly more expensive and time-consuming task. If Reset The Net is only picked up by a small number of privacy-concerned individuals, the effort will do nothing at all to change the shape of mass surveillance. Whether or not Reset The Net succeeds in popularizing and generalizing better privacy practices, its inception serves as a telling reflection of the status quo one year after Snowden's leaks first broke.

The shock over totalized surveillance has long diffused, the reality has settled in. Realization has not led to major reform, let alone revolution. The resistance that is spreading through efforts like Reset The Net is pragmatic more than inherently potent. At best, a critical mass of privacy protected communications will force the government to rethink blanket surveillance. At worst, (and more likely) a few more people will pick up tools to add some anti-surveillance protections to their own communications. At base, it is a set of tools for better navigating, as opposed to upturning, our surveillance state.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has promised that some of the most explosive revelations from Snowden's documents are yet to come. I venture, though, that whatever new leaks stream from Snowden's trove, they too will be swiftly digested into normality. A year of revelation has inured the public to surprise about mass surveillance. We have rightly come to expect the worst. I hope that on the second anniversary of the NSA leaks, I am not writing about how we continued to accept it and that there are many more dates marking bold acts of resistance to look back on.

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Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard