Edward Snowden

In case you missed the announcement today, the Nobel Peace Prize was just awarded to India’s Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai for their advocacy of children’s rights and education. If you’d like to learn more about them, The Guardian gives a brief overview of both of the winners here.

Because the Nobel Peace Prize is the only Nobel prize awarded in Norway it is a topic that tends to pop up in conversation here. Before the announcement of this year’s winners, I was actually pretty surprised to learn that Norwegians were actively campaigning to have Edward Snowden win the prize. In fact, my visit to the Nobel Institute’s Democracy Center even had a small exhibit showcasing Snowden. Because of all the hype surrounding Snowden, I thought it would be interesting to teach a lesson on him in one of my classes.

In practice, teaching about Snowden actually ended up being much difficult than I had anticipated. Not only did I have to come up with simple ways to define a few more technical terms, I also had to give some background on the US Justice system in order to properly explain the Fisa Court and the laws that allow surveillance in the US.

So, here’s what I ended up talking about:

A (Heavily Condensed) Timeline of Snowden Revelations

Jun 6: The Guardian reports on Verizon
Jun 7: The PRISM program is revealed
Jun 21: The Tempura program is revealed
Jun 29: Der Spiegel reports that EU offices and UN headquarters were bugged
Jul 31: XKeyscore is revealed (which was notable since this information did not come from Snowden, thus giving legitimacy to fears that Snowden would inspire other whistleblowers)
Aug 16: The Washington Post reports that the NSA has been breaking privacy rules (2,776 violations between March 2011 – March 2012 alone)
Sep 5: The NSA is reportedly able to get around most encryption methods by using backdoors in technology or by putting pressure on companies to use weak encryption techniques
Jan 14: The NSA can access computers that aren’t online
Jul 1: “Warrant for the world:” the NSA is given the legal go ahead to collect information on all countries except for the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
Aug 13: MonsterMind is revealed
Sep 5: The NSA considered spying for US companies to give them a competitive edge

Legal Basis for Surveillance

There are three main laws that allow for such widespread surveillance: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Executive Order 12333, and the Patriot Act of 2011. All of these have been amended, with the latest amendments occurring in 2004 and 2008.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978

  • Established the Fisa Court which was created due to events in the 1970s. At the time, it was reported that the government had been spying on political and activist groups. The Court was created to ensure government oversight over surveillance practices.
    • There are a total of 10 federal judges on the Fisa Court, none of whom have to be experts in privacy or surveillance law. Only one judge is needed in order to approve a warrant
    • The Court only sees the government’s viewpoint; it does not hear testimony from those who are about to be surveilled
    • The rulings of the Court are classified, rendering an appeals process impossible
    • Up until 2004, the court has only struck down five surveillance requests and approved 18,761 requests
  • Originally if the government wanted to spy on an individual it would need to have the Fisa court approve that individual warrant. Now a warrant is only needed if the target is a US citizen or if a call takes place entirely within the US.

Executive Order 12333

  • Allows for the collection of data needed for “national defense” as long as such data collection is not prohibited by existing laws

Patriot Act of 2001

  • Allows information to be collected as long as it is related to an investigation. In other words, information collection does not have to be directly related to a target, just related to an investigation

While these laws establish the legality behind surveillance, there is still a process the government has to go through in order to actually collect the desired information. There are two main ways that the government gets this legal mandate: a national security letter or a Fisa court order.

National Security Letter

  • Allows the FBI to compel companies to reveal subscriber and billing information
  • The content of these letters as well as their existence cannot be revealed
  • These letters are what the government has generally used with companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo

Fisa court order

  • A warrant that is approved by the Fisa Court that allows for legal surveillance

Consequences: Or Has Anything Changed Since Snowden?

Since Snowden’s revelations, something that has being asked is whether or not Snowden has actually inspired change. Overall I would say that while many of these changes are still ongoing, Snowden has made an impact. Since Snowden we have witnessed:

  • Calls for FISA court reform
  • NSA documents becoming declassified
  • Companies becoming more transparent
  • Companies fighting back
    • Microsoft recently announced that it was taking the government to court over demands to reveal email information stored on servers abroad
    • Apple’s new encryption techniques will prevent them from handing over data to the government


After teaching my students, I had them divide up into groups so that they could debate whether or not Snowden did the right thing. I was actually pretty surprised to find that the groups arguing against Edward Snowden were floundering. Both groups were having difficulty coming up with reasons why Snowden did the wrong thing, or should be considered a traitor. Considering the number of negative reactions I’ve seen surrounding Snowden in the US, I was pretty surprised to find these groups struggling. In the end, I decided to give these groups a few arguments that they could use (Snowden’s revelations would encourage more whistleblowers to disclose national secrets, it hurts US credibility abroad, it hurts US companies abroad, etc.) but it was pretty clear that both groups found these arguments less than compelling.

Overall I would say that there were three aspects of my lecture that got people riled up:

  1. The structure and intent behind the Fisa Court. Many of my students struggled to understand both the reasoning behind the Court and why the Court is structured in the way that it is.
  2. Internal abuses by the NSA. They were particularly outraged by LOVEINT, or the practice of some employees of spying on love interests. My students were also outraged that the NSA had even entertained the idea of spying on foreign companies in order to pass along information to domestic companies.
  3. The lack of success when it came to actually stopping terrorist attacks. When PRISM and other programs were originally unveiled, Director Keith Alexander said that the NSA had stopped 54 attacks, but that number was later revised to “at most one.”

At the end of the debate, I had my groups tell me their actual feelings on Snowden, and the vast majority of them approved of Snowden’s actions. However, when I asked if they would award him the Nobel, only three people out of my group of twelve raised their hands.

While I don’t think this was my most popular lesson, it was fun to do and presented a nice challenge. At the end of the day, I also felt like it did a good job of getting my students to talk and think critically.

If you have any interest in learning more about Snowden (I apologize for my overwhelming lack of references) I’d highly recommend this recent piece done by The Guardiaas well as this Wired interview with Snowden. For more general information, I’d suggest looking at:

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