Did the Snowden Revelations Change Anything?

Ten years ago, an unorthodox reporting team flew from New York to Hong Kong to meet someone claiming to be a spy who was ready to hand over a trove of top-secret documents. The hastily assembled group of journalists comprised the U.S. documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras; the blogger Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist at The Guardian; and myself, a Guardian reporter based in New York.

I did not know the identity of the person we were to meet. He or she had sent a “welcome pack,” a sample of classified documents that appeared genuine—but I was still uncertain, wondering whether the potential story might be an elaborate fraud or the work of a disgruntled crank. The source turned out to be no hoaxer but a contractor with the National Security Agency: Edward Snowden.

Then age 29, Snowden had become disillusioned by what he had seen inside the NSA of the scale of intrusion into privacy in the post-9/11 U.S.—some of it illegal—and around the world. He had decided to become a whistleblower. We spent almost a week interviewing him during the day in his cluttered room, in the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, and then writing stories late into the night.  

At the end of one of the interviews, I asked Snowden for evidence showing the involvement of the NSA’s British surveillance partner, the Government Communications Headquarters. The next morning, he gave me a memory stick. I expected it to contain one or two examples; instead, it stored tens of thousands of documents, covering both the NSA and GCHQ. These were to form the basis for subsequent reporting by The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica, which became partners in investigating and publishing the story. Snowden had given even more material to Poitras and Greenwald. In sheer quantity, this was the biggest leak in intelligence history.

What remains a puzzle to me is why the U.S. intelligence agencies seemingly never tried to stop him or us. Greenwald and I stayed in a hotel a taxi ride away, and each morning, as we traveled to see Snowden, I expected to find him gone, spirited away. Conceivably, the U.S. agencies were unaware of how many documents Snowden was sharing with us. I hope one day an answer to this conundrum might emerge in a release of declassified archives or a disclosure by a retired intelligence officer.

[Read: Would the U.S. grant asylum to a man who exposed Russia’s spying?]

Also reporting the story was the investigative journalist Barton Gellman, then of The Washington Post (and now a staff writer at The Atlantic). For various reasons, including the concerns of Post lawyers, Gellman decided against going to Hong Kong, opting to work on the stories from the United States. Writing in the Post near the end of 2013, Gellman summarized the significance of the Snowden story thus: “Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations.”

The Snowden revelations about the collection of citizens’ private communications provoked public outrage in the U.S. and around the world. Ten years on, what has changed? How should we now balance the benefits of greater awareness of surveillance against the damage that intelligence agencies claim was done to their capabilities? And what of the protagonists in the original story, caught up in the political turmoil of the past decade?

The disclosures did bring some tangible results. In both the U.S and the U.K., lawmakers introduced important if limited reforms, and courts ruled in favor of enhanced privacy. Less tangible, though real enough, was a growth in public awareness of surveillance. When the first stories emerged from our encounter in Hong Kong, the response of some people was a blasé “We knew that.” No, they did not. They might have suspected large-scale data collection, but few outside the intelligence apparatus had any inkling of its true extent and the agencies’ powers. Knowledge of the ease with which phones can be hacked and the vulnerability of other electronic communications has become mainstream, even commonplace, over the past decade.

Another major change resulted specifically from Snowden’s disclosure of the PRISM program, which revealed the extent to which Big Tech firms—including Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Apple—were handing over users’ personal data to the agencies. Initially, Silicon Valley was embarrassed to have its collaboration with the spy agencies exposed—but that turned to anger when Snowden’s further disclosures demonstrated that the spooks were also helping themselves to the companies’ data by exploiting backdoor vulnerabilities. Ignoring opposition from the intelligence community, Big Tech ushered in end-to-end encryption years earlier than originally planned. A wariness that did not exist in the industry before 2013 still persists.

Ben Wizner, who works at the American Civil Liberties Union and is Snowden’s lawyer, views the affair’s repercussions as “exponentially more positive” than he’d have predicted at the time—though with important qualifications, both for Snowden and for society.

“I thought the most likely outcome of the situation is he will be in prison and the world will shrug,” he told me when we spoke recently. “And he is not in prison, and the world did not shrug. We in fact had an extraordinary, historic global debate about technology, surveillance, and liberty that continues to this day and will frame, in some ways, the debate about AI and new technology that are emerging.”

As for Snowden himself, he has continued to live in exile in Moscow, where he ended up after leaving Hong Kong. He remains in contact with the original reporting team that met him in Hong Kong, and I have visited him three times in Moscow. On Friday—which was the anniversary of when Poitras, Greenwald, and I landed in Hong Kong—Snowden and I spoke online. Even with the perspective of a decade, he has no regrets. The widespread use of end-to-end encryption alone was a valuable legacy, he told me: “That was a pipe dream in 2013 when the story broke. An enormous fraction of global internet traffic traveled electronically naked. Now it is a rare sight.”

But he is not satisfied with such gains—not least because privacy has only come under further assault from technological advances. “The idea that after the revelations in 2013 there would be rainbows and unicorns the next day is not realistic,” he told me. “It is an ongoing process. And we will have to be working at it for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives and beyond.”

Before the Snowden affair, I had mainly covered foreign affairs and politics, including six years I spent as The Guardian’s Washington bureau chief. After Hong Kong, I took up a beat in London covering national security. At first, I found that the intelligence community bore a grudge—conversations I had with officials would begin with their saying, “Let’s put Snowden behind us,” but they’d invariably end up asking, “Do you realize how much damage you did?”

That assessment has persisted in some quarters. A former head of GCHQ, Sir David Omand, told me he believes that the public-interest argument is outweighed by damage the leaks caused. “On the downside, I think it is pretty significant that operations had to be halted,” he said. SIS, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, “had to close human-intelligence operations down for fear of information analyzed by Russians, the Chinese, Iranians.”

Ciaran Martin, who was the director-general of cyber security at GCHQ, brought in to deal with fallout from the Snowden revelations, expressed his sense that our stories had an implicit double standard, portraying the intelligence services of Western democracies as “uniquely evil actors” while ignoring what Russia and China were doing. “The charge that we were the principal malignant actors on the internet was pretty shaky at the time and completely unsustainable now,” he told me. “It is not an argument that could be made from within the borders of the Russian Federation.”

Snowden disputes the damage narrative and says the agencies never produced any evidence for that. “Disruption? Sure, that is plausible,” he said. “But it is hard to claim ‘damage’ if, despite 10 years of hysterics, the sky never fell in.”  

GCHQ itself changed after Snowden. Despite some rearguard action, it went from being the most secretive of the British agencies to the most open—from a single press officer who mostly responded with “no comment,” to an in-house team of media professionals who hold regular briefings. More significantly, GCHQ opened a public branch in 2016, the National Cyber Security Centre, with Martin as its first head. The center issues information on potential threats and acts as a resource for companies and individuals looking to improve their cybersecurity.

[Tom Nichols: The narcissists who endanger America]

As I read through the Snowden documents, many showed the agencies—which eavesdropped on terrorists, the Taliban, hostage takers, human traffickers, and drug cartels—in a good light. Scott Shane, a national-security correspondent at The New York Times with whom I worked at the time, reached the same conclusion. I regret that more of this context was not reflected in our coverage—though this is not a matter of hindsight: Both Shane and I did write stories in 2013 that attempted to provide this balance. If neither of these efforts gained much traction, that may have reflected a lack of public appetite at the time for greater nuance in the prevailing story about surveillance.  

I regret that some idealistic young officials at GCHQ whom I later encountered felt injured by our reporting, that their work was denigrated. But a far greater regret is that I did not devote much thought to what would happen to Snowden himself next.

When he left Hong Kong, he had tickets that would take him to Ecuador via Moscow and Cuba (as a distraction tactic, he also held tickets for other destinations in Latin America). Fidel Narvaez, the consul at the Ecuadorian embassy in London at the time, told me last week of his conviction that Russia, viewing Snowden’s presence as a propaganda coup, used the excuse of the U.S. cancellation of Snowden’s passport to keep him at the airport terminal in Moscow. Narvaez flew there to see Snowden at the time and negotiate with the Russians; he himself had signed an emergency travel document that would have allowed Snowden to continue his journey. Narvaez concludes that Snowden “was basically trapped and kidnapped.”

Nevertheless, if he had reached Ecuador, a change in government there in 2017 would probably have resulted in his being handed over to the U.S. authorities—in which case Snowden would likely be sitting in a U.S. prison today. Yet his exile in Russia has led to harsh criticism from some quarters—and the vilification has intensified since the invasion of Ukraine and his taking Russian citizenship (he applied for it before the war but was granted it only last year).

He is accused by his detractors of not denouncing Russia’s surveillance as well as its treatment of gay rights, repression of dissidents and journalists, and other antidemocratic measures. In fact, he has spoken out on all of these things. Although he has described the Russian government as corrupt and denounced it for election fraud, any direct attack on President Vladimir Putin would be extremely risky for him, inviting retaliation or even expulsion. Until about two years ago, he maintained a relatively high profile, doing media interviews, making speeches, and tweeting regularly. Today, he is less visible, giving only rare media interviews and cutting down on speeches and social-media activity.

And what of the others? Poitras was a crucial player. Snowden had reached out to her after initially failing to get a response from Greenwald. To her credit, she engaged with him, even though she had reason to fear an entrapment plot after becoming persona non grata with the U.S. government over her film work in Iraq. She was on the team honored with a Pulitzer Prize awarded in 2014 for the Snowden reporting. She went on to win an Oscar in 2015 for her film about Snowden, Citizenfour.

Gellman, whose work largely earned the Post its share of the Pulitzer with The Guardian, published a detailed account of the Snowden affair, Dark Mirror, in 2020. Greenwald, who also wrote a book version of the story, No Place to Hide, went on to co-found The Intercept but parted ways with the publication in 2020. His contrarianism, criticism of mainstream media, and sniping at the Biden administration have attracted the wrath of liberals—an animus exacerbated by his regular appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

Other protagonists included the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who sent a colleague, Sarah Harrison, to help Snowden flee Hong Kong, and Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, who was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport under a counterterrorism law because he had been carrying Snowden material. (Miranda, who went on to become a member of Brazil’s Congress, died in May this year, aged 37.)

As for me, I got off lightly—minor hassles in the first year, when I found myself routinely held up at U.K. passport control because my name had been placed on a watch list. While we were in Hong Kong, The Guardian sent its head of legal affairs to provide advice. When I asked about some specific liability, she replied, “You have already broken so many laws; a few more won’t make much difference.”

The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, and the U.S. editor, Janine Gibson, resisted considerable pressure not to publish the original reporting. Subsequently, in a bizarre scene that served little practical purpose, Rusbridger agreed to a British-government request to physically destroy the Guardian computers that held our copy of the documents. GCHQ’s argument was that The Guardian did not have the expertise to keep the archive secure. We continued reporting from New York.

Rusbridger did inform British officials that he would not publish material more broadly than those stories about privacy—Snowden had asked for this from the start, and Rusbridger had already issued it as an edict to reporters. Later, Rusbridger asked me to go back to The New York Times, which still had the material, to review it all and draw up a list of additional stories that might become reportable if we were freed from the mandate to confine stories to privacy issues. I returned to London with a list of about a dozen, which he rejected—not only because he had not intended to renege on the agreement with Snowden, but also because none of them was as explosive as the original stories. With our colleagues at the Post, the Times, Der Spiegel, and the other media organizations involved, we had already done the best. In the end, we published only about 1 percent of the documents.

A copy of the Snowden documents remains locked in an office at the Times, so far as I know. The Guardian looked briefly at finding an alternative without success. At some point, the issue of where to store them permanently will presumably have to be addressed—though the issue may, in an important sense, be moot. “One can reasonably assume that the whole archive is in the hands of the Russians and Chinese states,” Martin, who left GCHQ in 2020 to become a professor at Oxford, told me, “and if you look at what has happened in the last decade, that is not a good thing.” (Snowden disputes the assumption that Russia and China have the archive.)

In another sense, it’s moot because the world has moved on. The public awareness of surveillance that was created by the Snowden revelations has curdled into a worldly cynicism about how much data Big Tech collects on us and what powerful new tools of intrusion governments have at their disposal. This is what weighs on Snowden today: developments such as facial-recognition software, AI, and invasive spyware such as Pegasus, which make the NSA’s surveillance powers that he exposed in 2013 look like “child’s play,” he told me.

“We trusted the government not to screw us. But they did. We trusted the tech companies not to take advantage of us. But they did,” he said. “That is going to happen again, because that is the nature of power.”