How unique is Edward Snowden among national security whistleblowers? Is his new or old information about mass surveillance? Given the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement has been in place for almost seventy years, Snowden’s evidence of its reach and power to impact political rights, democracy and technology echo previous revelations, defections and publications.

Snowden revealed mass surveillance and global data collection about citizens of all countries by the Five Eyes alliance. So did UK journalist Duncan Campbell in his 1988 exposure if the Echelon system (1), the global network of installations in the Five Eyes countries that vacuumed up all phone, fax and transportation communications from commercial satellites. Campbell published the acronym GCHQ for the first time, revealing the Government Communications Headquarters as the UK Five Eyes partner (2), and was charged under the UK Official Secrets Act for challenging the secrecy of secret intelligence organisations.

Snowden raised awareness and alarm about technically optimized tools for political control and their impact on democratic institutions and rights. So did the US Church Committee Study of Intelligence Activities that warned after Watergate, COINTELPRO and covert operations were exposed that unless reformed, the technical capacity of the intelligence community left ‘no place to hide’. So did the European Parliament when it commissioned the 1989 report, “An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control” aimed at understanding the impact of the unchecked proliferation of surveillance devices, asserting from the outset that, “it is insufficient to describe developments in a purely technical sense, it is also necessary to consider these technologies as social and political factors.’  (3) WikiLeaks also warned, as recently as 2011 in the Spy Files, that the unregulated trade in mass surveillance technologies on the part of western corporations and states had political impacts.(4)

Snowden’s was not a snap decision, but considered. He sought a particular job to gather data, creating a filing system of carefully chosen documents and PowerPoint slides on surveillance programs underway. Daniel Ellsberg also took his time planning the leak of the Pentagon Papers, photocopying the 7000 pages from 47 bound volumes over a one-year period. One by one, night after night, each page was placed face down on glass, costing the equivalent of $20,000 in photocopying and providing time to decide how and when the material should be made public.(5)

Snowden is young. So was Igor Gouzenko, who left the Soviet Embassy at age 26 to defect to Canada three days after the Japanese surrender on 5 September 1945, with 109 documents, including code books and deciphering materials. Some historians credit him with starting the Cold War, (6) such was the scandal his revelations caused, particularly those regarding nuclear secrets passed to the Soviet Union by British nuclear scientists, Soviet infiltration of UK’s MI5 and of Canada, triggering the first Royal Commission into communism and infiltration, also known as the Canadian Spy Trials.

Snowden is in exile, but with the help of lawyers and journalists, is free to explain his actions and shape the narrative around the material he brought to light. So was Peter Wright, the retired UK MI5 officer who lived in Tasmania during the controversy and court case surrounding the publication of his memoir. Spycatcher focused on the deployment of surveillance technology during the Cold War and the infiltration of UK intelligence agencies, with lawyer Malcolm Turnbull arguing that Wright exposed illegal activity by MI5 which begged the question, “How can a democracy tolerate a situation where a vast intelligence apparatus is completely above the law, not because the law does not apply to it, but simply because it is so secret that nobody is ever in a position to know what it does.” (7)

Like Snowden’s revelations, Wright also caused international scandal among governments and between three of the Five Eyes nations; heads of state were forced to make statements in parliaments (8), former heads of state testified before courts and much embarrassment was had by all intelligence agencies implicated. Like Snowden’s attachment to the US Constitution, Wright maintained a strong patriotism and loyalty to the institutions formerly served, pointing out where they had gone wrong rather than calling for their abolition.

Snowden has provided new examples of economic espionage on companies like Petrobas in Brazil or Siemens in Germany, but these too are hardly new. In fact, formal processes exist in Australia and the US to share economic intelligence with the private sector, with the GCHQ having statutory intelligence gathering powers, “in the interests of the economic well being of the UK.” (9)

While defence and IT companies have long been part of the surveillance apparatus and economy, Snowden delivered what Bernard Keane has described as a “massive trust shock” (10) to US-based IT giants, starting with those either complicit or compelled to cooperate in the PRISM program: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, YouTube and PalTalk. These corporations enjoy the vast majority of Internet users globally, with Google occupying 71 % of market share search, Facebook 72% market share in social media, PayPal 60% of web transactions.  (11) The physical architecture of the Internet, combined with the sheer market share of PRISM US partner companies, made content and metadata subject to US law and therefore available to the NSA under the US Patriot Act.

It is here, due to the role of the Internet in daily life, business and government that we find genuinely new aspects and impacts of surveillance revealed by Snowden. The Internet is, according to Glenn Greenwald, “the epicentre of our world…To turn that network into a system of mass surveillance has implications unlike those of any previous state surveillance programs…By daring to expose the NSA’s astonishing surveillance capabilities and its even more astounding ambitions, [Snowden] has made it clear, with these disclosures, that we stand at a historic crossroads.” (12)

The Internet also meant that Snowden’s revelations gained global and instant coverage, possibly more mainstream media than all previous leaks and publications combined. While criticized by those who would like to see a full and instant public archive of Snowden’s material, the drip-feeding of it through sequenced thematic and geographically focused discrete drops has only stretched the coverage, amplified further through CitizenFour, the Academy Award winning film by Laura Poitras, as well formal collaboration with The Guardian (13), citizen journalism, blogging and public education tools like the Surveillance Studies Network archive. (14)

The manhunt for Snowden also has unique and Internet-relevant features. Publishers and journalists facilitated a spectacular escape while the world’s greatest military and surveillance power grounded the Bolivian Presidential plane in his pursuit, flouting longstanding traditions that grant immunity and inviolability to a Head of State and his or her aircraft. Snowden’s asylum fate was eventually in the hands of the Russian state, but what saw him to safety was the ingenuity of non-state actors, the small WikiLeaks team relying on their wits, the bitter experience of Assange and Manning’s treatment, and most significantly, their skills in using the Internet to communicate securely with encryption.

While the dedicated band of journalists and researchers publishing about Five Eyes mass surveillance during its analogue decades and early Internet era might not have been surprised by the scope of Snowden’s revelations, their research and proof gathering was confirmed, corrected and updated. Official documents, precise terms and programs by which entire populations are under dragnet surveillance by the Five Eyes alliance are in the public domain. “Neither confirming nor denying” national security operational matters became redundant in the face of hard evidence proving that the sovereignty of nations and the human rights of individuals to privacy, freedom of association and expression had been routinely violated.

The Internet has also been a site and tool for resistance, protest and opposition. Globally coordinated online events like The Day we Fight Back and Reset the Net, and multistakeholder meetings heavily reliant on the Internet have provided educational information and tools, gathered voices and participation and amplify results such, including global webcast events such as the NetMundial, initiated by the Brazilian government in protest to Snowden’s revelations.

Does the online and offline movements that educate, organise and resist surveillance mark the beginning of the end of the NSA’s proclaimed “golden age of SIGINT”? (15) Or will an ‘electronic panopticon’ such as that described by Lyon (16) and Gordon (17) crush, distract or chill the impact and effectiveness of resistance?

  1. Campbell, D (1988-08-12) “Somebody’s Listening”, New Statesman
  2. Campbell, D (1976), ‘The Eavesdroppers’, Time Out
  3. p p1
  5. Greenberg, A (2012) This Machine Kills Secrets, p. 13
  6. Jack Lawrence Granatstein, Spy Wars: Espionage and Canada from Gouzenko to Glasnost
  7. Turnbull, M. (1988) The Spycatcher trial. Richmond, Vic.: William Heinemann Australia, p 148
  8. Margaret Thatcher, 13 January 1987, statement in the House of Commons
  9. FROM IC2000 report “In Australia, commercially relevant Comint is passed by DSD to the Office of National Assessments, who consider whether, and if so where, to disseminate it. Staff there may pass information to Australian companies if they believe that an overseas nation has or seeks an unfair trade advantage. Targets of such activity have included Thomson-CSF, and trade negotiations with Japanese purchasers of coal and iron ore. Similar systems operate in the other UKUSA nations, Canada and New Zealand.”
  11. Global Search Engine Market Share – Feb 2014; Space is monopolised by Google. (The next highest market share for desktop searches is Baidu with about 15%. yahoo – 6%, Bing 6%), Online sales / auctions – EBay has 76% market share
    Facebook has a 72% market share in social media (as of March 2013), with YouTube at about 10%, Twitter at 5%.
    PayPal conducts 60% of web transactions (in the US) per a study conducted in 2012., Google Chrome has a 44% market share in browsers (IE – 22.6%, Firefox – 19%) as of Feb 2014., Apple has a 45% market share in email followed by Microsoft and Google at 24% and 19% respectively. (Global Email Market Shares as of February 2014)
  12. Greenwald, G. (2014) No Place to Hide : Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State / Collect It All. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group p. 5
  13. The Guardian’s NSA Files:
  14. The Snowden Archive:
  15. Risen, J and Poitras, L, (2013-11-22) “NSA Report Outlined Goal for More Power”, New York Times
  16. Lyon, D (1994), ‘From Big Brother to the Electronic Panopticon’, in The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 57-80
  17. Gordon, D (1990) ‘The Electronic Panopticon’, in The Justice Juggernaut : fighting street crime, controlling citizens, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 438-51