Snowden at ten

As almost every media outlet has headlined this week, it is now ten years since Edward Snowden alerted the world to the real capabilities of the spy agencies, chiefly but not solely the US National Security Agency. What is the state of surveillance now? most of the stories ask.

Some samples: at the Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock summarizes what Snowden revealed; Snowden is interviewed; the Guardian’s editor at the time, Alan Rusbridger, recounts events at the Guardian, which co-published Snowden’s discoveries with the Washington Post; journalist Heather Brooke warns of the increasing sneakiness of government surveillance; and Jessica Lyons Hardcastle outlines the impact. Finally, at The Atlantic, Ewen MacAskill, one of the Guardian journalists who worked on the Snowden stories, says only about 1% of Snowden’s documents were ever published.

As has been noted here recently, it seems as though everywhere you look surveillance is on the rise: at work, on privately controlled public streets, and everywhere online by both government and commercial actors. As Brooke writes and the Open Rights Group has frequently warned, surveillance that undermines the technical protections we rely on puts us all in danger.

The UK went on to pass the Investigatory Powers Act, which basically legalized what the security services were doing, but at least did add some oversight. US courts found that the NSA had acted illegally and in 2015 Congress made bulk collection of Americans’ phone records illegal. But, as Bruce Schneier has noted, Snowden’s cache of documents was aging even in 2013; now they’re just old. We have no idea what the secret services are doing now.

The impact in Europe was significant: in 2016 the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation. Until Snowden, data protection reform looked like it might wind up watering down data protection law in response to an unprecedented amount of lobbying by the technology companies. Snowden’s revelations raised the level of distrust and also gave Max Schrems some additional fuel in bringing his legal actions< against EU-US data deals and US corporate practices that leave EU citizens open to NSA snooping.

The really interesting question is this: what have we done *technically* in the last decade to limit government’s ability to spy on us at will?

Work on this started almost immediately. In early 2014, the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Engineering Task Force teamed up on a workshop called Strengthening the Internet Against Pervasive Monitoring (STRINT). Observing the proceedings led me to compare the size of the task ahead to boiling the ocean. The mood of the workshop was united: the NSA’s actions as outlined by Snowden constituted an attack on the Internet and everyone’s privacy, a view codified in RFC 7258, which outlined the plan to mitigate pervasive monitoring. The workshop also published an official report.

Digression for non-techies: “RFC” stands for “Request for Comments”. The thousands of RFCs since 1969 include technical specifications for Internet protocols, applications, services, and policies. The title conveys the process: they are published first as drafts and incorporate comments before being finalized.

The crucial point is that the discussion was about *passive* monitoring, the automatic, ubiquitous, and suspicionless collection of Internet data “just in case”. As has been said so many times about backdoors in encryption, the consequence of poking holes in security is to make everyone much more vulnerable to attacks by criminals and other bad actors.

So a lot of that workshop was about finding ways to make passive monitoring harder. Obviously, one method is to eliminate vulnerabilities, especially those the NSA planted. But it’s equally effective to make monitoring more expensive. Given the law of truly large numbers, even a tiny extra cost per user creates unaffordable friction. They called it a ten-year project, which takes us to…almost now.

Some things have definitely improved, largely through the expanded use of encryption to protect data in transit. On the web, Let’s Encrypt, now ten years old, makes it easy and cheap to obtain a certificate for any website. Search engines contribute by favoring encrypted (that is, HTTPS) web links over unencrypted ones (HTTP). Traffic between email servers has gone from being transmitted in cleartext to being almost all encrypted. Mainstream services like WhatsApp have added end-to-end encryption to the messaging used by billions. Other efforts have sought to reduce the use of fixed long-term identifiers such as MAC addresses that can make tracking individuals easier.

At the same time, even where there are data protection laws, corporate surveillance has expanded dramatically. And, as has long been obvious, governments, especially democratic governments, have little motivation to stop it. Data collection by corporate third parties does not appear in the public budget, does not expose the government to public outrage, and is available via subpoena any time government officials want. If you are a law enforcement or security service person, this is all win-win; the only data you can’t get is the data that isn’t collected.

In an essay reporting on the results of the work STRINT began as part of the ten-year assessment currently circulating in draft, STRINT convenor Stephen Farrell writes, “So while we got a lot right in our reaction to Snowden’s revelations, currently, we have a “worse” Internet.”

Illustrations: Edward Snowden, speaking to Glenn Greenwald in a screenshot from Laura Poitras’ film Prism from Praxis Films (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Twitter.


“I have to take a photo,” the courier said, raising his mobile phone to snap a shot of the package on the stoop in front of my open doorway.

This has been the new thing. I guess the spoken reason is to ensure that the package recipient can’t claim that it was never delivered, protecting all three of the courier, the courier company, and the shipper from fraud. But it feels like the unspoken reason is to check that the delivery guy has faithfully completed his task and continued on his appointed round without wasting time. It feels, in other words, like the delivery guy is helping the company monitor him.

I say this, and he agrees. I had, in accordance with the demands of a different courier, pinned a note to my door authorizing the deliverer to leave the package on the doorstep in my absence. “I’d have to photograph the note,” he said.

I mentioned American truck drivers, who are pushing back against in-cab cameras and electronic monitors. “They want to do that here, too,” he said. “They want to put in dashboard cameras.” Since then, in at least some cases – for example, Amazon – they have.

Workplace monitoring was growing in any case, but, as noted in 2021, the explosion in remote working brought by the pandemic normalized a level of employer intrusion that might have been more thoroughly debated in less fraught times. The Trades Union Congress reported in 2022 that 60% of employees had experiened being tracked in the previous years. And once in place, the habit of surveillance is very hard to undo.

When I was first thinking about this piece in 2021, many of these technologies were just being installed. Two years later, there’s been time for a fight back. One such story comes from the France-based company Teleperformance, one of those obscure, behind-the-scenes suppliers to the companies we’ve all heard of. In this case, the company in the shadows supplies remote customer service workers to include, just in the UK, the government’s health and education departments, NHS Digital, the RAF and Royal Navy, and the Student Loans Company, as well as Vodafone, eBay, Aviva, Volkswagen, and the Guardian itself; some of Teleperformance’s Albanian workers provide service to Apple UK

In 2021, Teleperformance demanded that remote workers in Colombia install in-home monitoring and included a contract clause requiring them to accept AI-powered cameras with voice analytics in their homes and allowing the company to store data on all members of the worker’s family. An earlier attempt at the same thing in Albania failed when the Information and Data Protection Commissioner stepped in.

Teleperformance tried this in the UK, where the unions warned about the normalization of surveillance. The company responded that the cameras would only be used for meetings, training, and scheduled video calls so that supervisors could check that workers’ desks were free of devices deemed to pose a risk to data security. Even so, In August 2021 Teleperformance told Test and Trace staff to limit breaks to ten minutes in a six-hour shift and to select “comfort break” on their computers (so they wouldn’t be paid for that time).

Other stories from the pandemic’s early days show office workers being forced to log in with cameras on for a daily morning meeting or stay active on Slack. Amazon has plans to use collected mouse movements and keystrokes to create worker profiles to prevent impersonation. In India, the government itself demanded that its accredited social health activists install an app that tracks their movements via GPS and monitors their uses of other apps.

More recently, Politico reports that Uber drivers must sign in with a selfie; they will be banned if the facial recognition verification software fails to find a match.

This week, at the Guardian Clea Skopoleti updated the state of work. In one of her examples, monitoring software calculates “activity scores” based on typing and mouse movements – so participating in Zoom meetings, watching work-related video clips, and thinking don’t count. Young people, women, and minority workers are more likely to be surveilled.

One employee Skopoleti interviews takes unpaid breaks to carve out breathing space in which to work; another reports having to explain the length of his toilet breaks. Another, a English worker in social housing, reports his vehicle is tracked so closely that a manager phones if they think he’s not in the right place or taking too long.

This is a surveillance-breeds-distrust-breeds-more-surveillance cycle. As Ellen Ullman long ago observed, systems infect their owners with the desire to do more and more with them. It will take time for employers to understand the costs in worker burnout, staff turnover, and absenteeism.

One way out is through enforcing the law: In 2020, the ICO investigated Barclay’s Bank, which was accused of spying on staff via software that tracked how they spent their time; the bank dropped it. In many of these stories, however, the surveillance suppliers say they operate within the law.

The more important way out is worker empowerment. In Colombia, Teleperformance has just guaranteed its 40,000 workers the right to form a union.

First, crucially, we need to remember that surveillance is not normal.

Illustrations: The boss tells Charlie Chaplin to get back to work in Modern Times (1936).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard – or follow on Twitter.