Surveillance after Snowden: Effective Espionage in an Age of Transparency

Robin Simcox

Surveillance after Snowden: Effective Espionage in an Age of Transparency is the most thorough analysis of the impact the Edward Snowden leaks have had on the US and UK’s national security. Informed in part by interviews with leading intelligence officials, the publication exposes the serious damage done by Snowden and the grave consequences this had for counter-terrorism and law enforcement agencies’ work.

Drawing lessons for the future, the new publication explores issues concerning surveillance; government legislation regarding Signals Intelligence; government access to data; private companies’ access to data; areas for potential reform; and the sufficiency of current oversight mechanisms.

Public consent is vital in order for intelligence agencies to be able to credibly operate. However, the report demonstrates that there are very good reasons for states to keep secrets. Therefore, while complete transparency is impossible, translucency must not be. As leading intelligence officials have said, such a model would allow the public to see the ‘broad patterns of movements […but] not the fine print’. This means agencies opening up further than they have in the past. Yet, it also means civil society accepting that unalloyed transparency is not always a positive.

Key findings on national security issues include:

Changes in target behaviour and communication methods

Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA and GCHQ have led to changes in suspects’ behaviour, as terrorists and criminals better understand the scope and scale of Western intelligence capacity. Intelligence sources have attempted to provide an insight into the day-to-day impact that Snowden has had on their work. For example:

  • At least three al-Qaeda affiliates are known to have changed their communication methods.
  • Online jihadist platforms released new encryption tools, and at a quicker pace.
  • A video released onto a jihadist platform outlined what they had learned from the Snowden disclosures, providing advice on how to avoid detection and listing software packages that protect against surveillance.
  • Foreign terror suspects realised that their communications potentially passed through the US (even if the individuals themselves were not based there) and which Communication Service Providers (CSP) were allowing the NSA to access these communications. They subsequently stopped using these CSPs to send emails or even stopped using electronic communications entirely.
  • GCHQ’s ability to track domestic and foreign crime gangs – including those relating to people trafficking and drugs – has been reduced by approximately 25%; while cracking the communications of high-value national-security targets can take three times as long.
  • By revealing information concerning intelligence-gathering techniques, Snowden has polluted ongoing operations. As they can no longer be run safely, due to fear of discovery and/or attribution, such intelligence gathering has had to stop.
  • There is also a fear that hostile states will read and adapt the methodologies that are displayed in the Snowden files: China and Russia, for example, deploying GCHQ’s or the NSA’s own cyber strategies against them.


Damaging military capabilities

The files which Snowden accessed are not limited to material relating to communications interception. Snowden created digital keys which allowed him into a variety of intelligence and military systems.

  • According to the Director of National Intelligence, of the information that Snowden accessed, approximately ‘less than 10 percent has to do with domestic surveillance.’
  • General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also testified that the ‘vast majority’ of what Snowden accessed was about ‘military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques and procedures.’
  • Mike Rogers, former Chairman of the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has said that ‘Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.’


Damaging relations between Communication Service Providers and the state

Following the Snowden disclosures, a significant divide has emerged between the government and the CSPs, who were outraged at the intelligence agencies’ ability to access their data.

  • US-based CSPs are now claiming that the UK has no jurisdiction over them and that they are bound by US law. Intelligence officials view the CSPs’ stance as being unreasonable, as other foreign companies wishing to deliver a service in the UK are obliged to comply with UK law. This was partially why the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) 2014 was introduced.
  • CSPs’ use of ubiquitous encryption has also increased exponentially since Snowden’s leaks, meaning that companies are automatically providing encryption for users, rather than the user having to encrypt the data themselves.

Escalation is inevitable, as the NSA and GCHQ step up their efforts to break into these networks.

Robin Simcox, author of the report and National Security Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society, said:

“There is a serious problem here. Intelligence agencies are being encouraged to be less intrusive and more transparent but just as effective. Yet Edward Snowden’s reckless actions have seriously hamstrung agencies such as NSA and GCHQ at a time when the West is facing a variety of challenges from terrorism, cyber crime and aggressive nation states.

The current system is not perfect, but there is no regime of mass surveillance and it is irresponsible to suggest that there is. The US and UK intelligence agencies are doing vital work in protecting national security and must be allowed to continue to do so.” 



Surveillance after Snowden: Effective Espionage in an Age of Transparency is available to download here



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