Former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden said he has seen a "profound" difference in public opinion regarding widespread government surveillance of phone, e-mail and Internet communications.
In 2013, Snowden shared thousands of classified documents with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who wrote numerous articles revealing the extent to which the U.S. and other countries spy on the communications of ordinary citizens around the world.
Snowden has been living in Russia, which provided him asylum, since shortly after revealing the secret documents. He faces federal espionage charges in the U.S. that could land him in prison for at least 30 years.
The information contained in the NSA documents leaked by Snowden has led to a public conversation about how to balance security and privacy concerns in the online and offline worlds. It has also led to greater public support by many technology companies for strong encryption to protect their customers' private communications.
'Grateful To Have Been So Wrong'
In a commentary in the New York Times on Thursday, published on the two-year anniversary of his first meeting with Greenwald and Poitras in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Snowden recalled being worried that "we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing -- that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations. Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong."
Snowden pointed to the recent court decision that found the NSA's call-tracking program was illegal. He also noted that even President Barack Obama has reversed his one-time support for the program. The mass surveillance of phone calls was ended as part of Congress' June 2 vote to renew parts of the U.S. Patriot Act.
"This is the power of an informed public," Snowden said. "The balance of power is beginning to shift . . . With each court victory, with every change in the law, we demonstrate facts are more convincing than fear. As a society, we rediscover that the value of a right is not in what it hides, but in what it protects."
Condemnation of Broad Surveillance 'Growing'
Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told us that he agreed with Snowden that public opinion has shifted regarding surveillance and privacy.
"There is widespread condemnation of broad government surveillance of populations," Schneier said. "It's tempered by fear, of course, but it's there. And it's growing."
He added that he has also seen a change in how technology companies have responded to concerns about issues like Internet privacy and encryption. "Companies are more likely to fight," Schneier noted. "You can see this as self-serving; they look good in the press by doing so. But some are taking a moral stance."
For example, he pointed to Apple CEO Tim Cook's recent criticisms of both surveillance agencies and technology companies for their large-scale storage and mining of citizens' online data. Earlier this week, Cook was the first business leader to receive a Champion of Freedom Award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
"Snowden is right that the balance of power is beginning to shift," Jeramie Scott, National Security Counsel and Privacy Coalition Coordinator for EPIC, told us. "The public is against mass surveillance of innocent citizens and the weakening of encryption; the courts have ruled the NSA's telephone bulk collection program unlawful; Congress has ended bulk collection and increased transparency requirements; and the Obama Administration has declassified numerous documents related to the surveillance activities of the Intelligence Community. But, Snowden is also right that more needs to be done."