Everything We Learned From Edward Snowden in 2013

The Guardian

Leaks from the fugitive former NSA contractor told us a lot about the scope of America’s Internet and phone surveillance powers. We could learn even more in 2014.

He didn't win Time's Person of the Year award or rank in Google's year-end list of top searches, but Edward Snowden repeatedly dominated Washington's policy conversation in 2013—and he did it without ever setting foot here.

Beginning in June, Snowden's leaks detailing the National Security Agency's vast data collection programs prompted a seemingly endless torrent of exposés in major publications around the world. The disclosures not only reveal the size of the NSA's phone and Internet metadata dragnet, but the at-times cavalier arrogance with which agency analysts boast about their surveillance muscle.

The 30-year-old fugitive now has all three branches of U.S. government discussing the need for surveillance reform, and many foreign heads of state questioning how much they can trust President Obama's administration.

So what, exactly, did we learn from Snowden this year? Here's an abridged recount of the major revelations:

  • June 5: Verizon on "an ongoing, daily basis" provides the NSA information on telephone calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. (The Guardian)

  • June 6: A secret program known as PRISM that began in 2007 collects foreign communications traffic from the servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, namely Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PayTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. (The Washington Post)

  • July 31: XKeyscore, the NSA's self-described "widest-reaching" intelligence system, is a software tool that allows analysts, reportedly without authorization, to search through enormous databases containing emails, online chats, and the browsing histories of millions of individuals. (The Guardian)

  • Aug. 29: The government's top-secret "black budget" details the allocation in fiscal 2013 of $52.6 billion for 16 federal spy agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. (The Washington Post)

  • Oct. 30: In tandem with the British Government Communications Headquarters, a program known as MUSCULAR secretly infiltrates and copies data flows across fiber-optic cables transporting information among data centers of Yahoo and Google. (The Washington Post)

  • Nov. 26: The NSA gathers records of online sexual activity and visits to porn sites in an effort to discredit the reputations of those believed to be jihadist radicalizers. (Huffington Post)

  • Dec. 4: The NSA is tracking 5 billion records a day that monitor the location of cell phones around the world. "In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs." (The Washington Post)

  • Dec. 9: Agents working for the NSA and Britain's GCHQ are infiltrating the virtual realities of online video games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life in an effort to catch and foil possible terrorist plots. (The New York Times)

  • Dec. 10: The NSA uses Google-acquired "cookies," relied upon by Internet advertisers to track preferences of consumers, to locate targets for hacking. (The Washington Post)

  • Dec. 20: The NSA paid RSA, a large computer security firm, $10 million to build and promote a flawed encryption system that left open a "back door" through which the agency's intelligence analysts could access data on computers around the world. (Reuters)

The flurry of new details that emerged in December indicate even more Snowden-fueled exposes could be coming in 2014. The slow bleed this far has been, at least in part, deliberate. Former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is one of Snowden's original confidants, said in an interview earlier this year that he hit the brakes on Snowden leaks after writing or helping to publish five stories on five consecutive days in June.

"Even our allies were saying, 'Look, this is too much information. We can't keep up with what you're publishing,' " Greenwald said.