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Privacy Since Snowden

LONDON – A year has passed since the American former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden began revealing the massive scope of Internet surveillance by the US National Security Agency. His disclosures have elicited public outrage and sharp rebukes from close US allies like Germany, upending rosy assumptions about how free and secure the Internet and telecommunications networks really are. Singlehandedly, Snowden has changed how people regard their phones, tablets, and laptops, and sparked a public debate about the protection of personal data. What his revelations have not done is bring about significant reforms.

To be sure, US President Barack Obama, spurred by an alliance between civil-society organizations and the technology industry, has taken some action. In a January speech, and an accompanying presidential policy directive, Obama ordered American spies to recognize that “all persons should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their nationality or wherever they might reside, and that all persons have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information.”

Some specific advances, unprecedented in the shadowy world of intelligence agencies, have accompanied this rhetorical commitment to privacy. When technology companies sued the government to release details about intelligence requests, the Obama administration compromised, supporting a settlement that allows for more detailed reporting. Under this agreement, companies have the option of publishing figures on data requests by intelligence agencies in ranges of 250 or 1,000, depending on the degree of disaggregation of the types of orders.

Though this represents a step forward, it is far from adequate, with gaping loopholes that prohibit reporting on some of the most notorious NSA programs, such as the dragnet collection of phone records under section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Moreover, Obama has demurred on the most significant recommendations of the independent review group that he appointed. And the “USA FREEDOM Act,” which was meant to stop the mass collection of Americans’ phone records, is being diluted by a set of amendments that would enable the government to continue collecting metadata on millions of individuals, without their consent. This metadata – covering whom we talk to, when, and for how long – can reveal as much about our private lives as the content itself.