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Snowden leaks after one year: Wrangling over the meaning of 'bulk'

Grant Gross | June 9, 2014
A debate in the U.S. about whether the National Security Agency should end its bulk collection of U.S. telephone and business records has come down to an argument over the meaning of the word "bulk."

"The revelations have an extraordinary impact on our country," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "They've really reinvigorated our democracy. They've allowed a conversation that's been long overdue about the relationship between new technology and privacy."

While the U.S. public is still debating what the proper surveillance reforms should be, "the fact that we're having that debate is tremendously significant," Abdo said. "We're far from the end of our experience with the Snowden effect."

Even beyond a still-heated debate over government surveillance, the Snowden leaks have led to a broader public debate about privacy in the digital age, Abdo said.

"The tech industry has been jolted a bit with the realization of how much Americans trust them to be good stewards of their private data," he said. "Americans appreciate more and more just how much information both the government and private industry are capable of collecting. We now live in a world in which pervasive surveillance is possible, and, is in some circumstances, occurring."

The Snowden leaks have prompted many tech services and Web users to take action, with encrypted traffic doubling over the past year, added Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel with international digital rights group Access.

Google has pushed for email encryption and members of the Reset the Net initiative promoted encryption and other privacy tools during the launch of their campaign this week.

Major telecom and Internet companies have begun issuing surveillance transparency reports, Stepanovich noted by email.

"Given that the NSA and other governments' surveillance agencies have traditionally operated behind a curtain of secrecy, the greatest impact of the Snowden revelations may be that we are no longer operating in the dark," she said by email. "Documents made available over the past year have meant that, for the first time, civil society and the public have been able to weigh in meaningfully on the limits of how states should spy on the world's Internet users."

The debate is "moving in the right direction," Stepanovich added. "We have the support of the internet community at our backs, pushing forward toward real reform."

Don't wait for Washington

The Reset the Net campaign calls on Web users to take privacy into their own hands by downloading a package of privacy tools.

Internet services with hundreds of millions of users have pledged to use SSL and other privacy tools as part of the campaign.

Web users shouldn't wait for Washington to act on surveillance reform, said Ethan Oberman, CEO of SpiderOak, a Reset the Net supporter and provider of a privacy-focused cloud service.

"I am not sure at this stage that a lot will come out of Washington," Oberman said. "We don't have to wait for things to happen in Washington in order to act. We can start building technologies that make it so that the third-party server that's storing the data does not know what that data is."


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