Information about the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance framework was shared with the public in June by I.T. contract employee Edward Snowden. The files he released, published by both The Washington Post and The Guardian in June, included evidence of unprecedented surveillance capabilities of the American government.
The leak included top secret orders to telecommunications companies demanding ongoing information of all phone calls within the United States. It also contained details of the PRISM surveillance program that allows the NSA to access private e-mail, web searches, video chat, and any other internet traffic in real-time. The documents revealed that since the majority of internet traffic passes through the U.S., PRISM has the capability to monitor and database the internet activity of almost anyone in the world, including U.S. citizens.
U.S. government officials confirmed the existence of these programs but stated that they had been misrepresented by Snowden. In particular, the NSA surveillance framework operates under the mandate that it cannot be used against American citizens without a warrant. President Barack Obama responded, “This is not a situation in which we are rifling through, you know, the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else.”
In Interview, Snowden recognized that this limit is less than a technicality. The policy of not using the software to spy on U.S. citizens is not enforced by the program, and with little oversight in place, anyone with access to the database can retrieve any surveillance results they want. In The Guardian, he argued his reason for the leak: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”
The response from within the U.S. has been starkly divided, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting and condemning Snowden’s leak or the actions of the NSA. The international community has broadly criticized the NSA’s surveillance program.