For years we were warned. People like William Binney, Russ Tice, Thomas Andrews Drake had warned the populous about the growing influence of the national security state. As early as 2004, whistleblowers started to emerge from the opaque organizations they were employed for. They foretold of a government that collects, stores, and attempts to analyze all of the country’s internet traffic without a warrant. That an overly broad interpretation of section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act allowed the government to issue a general warrant for all of the communications in America, because it is potentially useful in a counter-terrorism investigation (regardless if it is useful). Since these organizations were within the Executive Branch, there was virtually no oversight by either Congress nor by federal judges. By coming out from the shadows and warning us of what’s going on behind closed doors, these brave men and women put themselves and their families in grave danger. Unfortunately, their calls were for reform were suppressed. Debate was stifled by hawks that wanted to continue to surveillance. In federal court, challenges brought against the surveillance were dismissed because of a lack of legal standing. Of course, how can you prove that the government is spying on you when that information is classified?

Then, in June 2013, that information became forcefully unclassified. Edward Snowden, National Security Agency contractor, employed by Booz Allen Hamilton covertly stole a collection of 1.7 million classified documents from the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Virginia. He got out of the country as fast as he could, first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, and distributed the documents to the journalist Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian.

Those documents contained a treasure trove of highly classified information, much of it damning and worrying. In fact, much of the information he stole was so secretive that it was classified at a level above top secret. Numerous programs have been revealed to the public since. PRISM, where the government works with the technology firms to collect vasts amounts of information from it’s users. MUSCULAR, where the government collects unencrypted information as it travels between Yahoo and Google data centers (without their knowledge or consent). DISHFIRE, where the NSA (in collaboration with it’s British counterpart, the GCHQ) collects  millions of text messages daily in an untargeted global sweep. DROPOUTJEEP, where the government is able to remotely retrieve information from the iPhone covertly (information includes but is not limited to voicemail, contact list, location data, SMS messages, and they can remotely activate both cameras and the microphone). Top secret court orders that force Verizon to hand over all of their ‘metadata’ (that is, data that gives context and specificity to other data). Tapping directly into intercontinental fiber optic cables.  Spying directly on the heads of state of Brazil and Germany. Industrial sabotage directed at a Belgian telecom company. Devices called IMSI-catchers can collect all cellular communication within a ‘several kilometer radius’. Think that’s scary? The LAPD uses IMSI-catchers regularly in their investigations.

It gets even crazier. A division within the NSA called the Tailored Access Operations intercepts deliveries of computers and laptops in order to install spyware on devices before they reach their destination. They even have the capabilities to sabotage and infiltrate computers that aren’t connected to the internet, using covertly planted radio transmitters that can send information to relay stations miles away.

Perhaps most damaging is the weakening of encryption standards. According the 2013 NSA budget request submitted to Congress, the NSA’s specific goals and use for the funds includes ‘influence policies, standards and specific technologies’. When taken at face value, this doesn’t seem to mean much. Upon closer examination, the true horror of what they’re doing is revealed. The NSA paid RSA (the company that creates most of the world’s encryption standards) $10 million to use a weaker algorithm in their random number generator used for their encryption called DUAL_EC_DRBG. They also influenced an encryption standard named A5/1, which is commonly used by cellular phones globally. They’re inserting holes into encryption standards that are used by everyone, including the government itself. They are doing this so that they can break into encrypted data if they need to. Problem is, by creating this vulnerability, they are opening the door for particularly clever hackers and nations (specifically China and Russia) to use the vulnerability themselves. This puts everyone at risk. Credit cards, banking information, state secrets, technological research and development, nuclear codes, infrastructure (gas, water, waste, roads, mass transit…)…  All encrypted with the weakened, poisoned standard. Unfortunately, Obama failed to address this concern with his recent reforms.

The government isn’t thinking about slowing down either. Oh, no. The NSA is spending tens of millions of dollars every year to create their next generation of encryption cracking quantum supercomputers. The federal government is spending $2 billion to create a data center in Utah to store all of the collected information. They expect to increase their efforts regarding encryption, as they see it as an important SIGINT (signals intelligence) battle to be won over the next decade. Without Snowden, who knows when the public would have learned about this? After all, in 2006, whistleblower Russ Tice said “there’s no way the programs I want to talk to Congress about should be public ever, unless maybe in 200 years they want to declassify them”.

My friends call me a paranoid freak, and maybe I am. Maybe I’m not. The NSA’s system works on a system of ‘hops’, you only have to be 3 degrees of separation from a terror target to become a target yourself. That is, if you are a friend of a friend of a friend of a terror suspect, you too are being surveilled. I’m friends with several foreign born political activists, a few of which have had direct confrontations with state and federal police during Occupy Albany. All of this means that I am definitely being surveilled by the government.

The American government might not be doing these things with malice. In fact, the NSA is probably dedicated to it’s mission to help Americans. This does not mean that I want them to have the ability to sift through everything that constitutes my digital existence, especially when the rules defining the surveillance are so broad and vague.

We may never be able to fully appreciate what Snowden has done for us. His actions sent unexpected shock waves through our society. Snowden’s job is complete. Now it’s time for us to do out part and change our society for the better with the new information that we have. Maybe we’ll finally have legal standing after all.