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Edward Snowden: Five years on

Today marks five years since the Guardian published Verizon’s FISA court order, the first story based on documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. At the time this story appeared, the whistleblower’s name was not known. It was three days and several enormous stories later that Snowden finally stepped out of the shadows, the source of the biggest public archive of top secret documents in history.

Edward Snowden was Courage’s first beneficiary. We run his official public defence fund and are honoured to have played a part in his story. Thanks to Courage – and the enormous contribution of Advisory Board member Sarah Harrison – Snowden was able to obtain political asylum and a measure of security from the Espionage Act indictment filed against him in the United States.

Snowden still cannot travel outside of Russia for fear of being landed with a US extradition request. This concern has stopped him receiving prizes and has prevented him from testifying in person to international inquiries. Despite widespread recognition of the importance of Snowden’s actions it remains a sad fact that no European country has offered him asylum.

Much remains to be done. While people are far more aware of government surveillance, thanks not just to Snowden but to the sequence of inquiries and legal actions that followed in the wake of his revelations, the past five years have not seen state surveillance activities curtailed in any meaningful way. Instead, the key story is one of formally unlawful activities being put on to a legal footing, with greater public understanding of the scale of these capabilities. As Snowden himself said to the Guardian this week, the people are still powerless but they are aware.

In 2018 technological self-help remains the best protection for our ability to store information and communicate securely. Snowden himself is contributing to these efforts. Courage will continue to fight attempts to compromise the right to encrypt as they come up in legislation and in the courts.

Snowden’s disclosures are of historic importance and it is important that they remain accessible in order to generate insights far into the future. Today, Courage maintains the most comprehensive search engine for the published Snowden documents, the Snowden Doc Search, which we developed in partnership with Transparency Toolkit. Courage also maintains a complete chronological list of Snowden reporting, which will be continue to be updated for as long as documents from the Snowden archive continue to find their way into the public domain.

Some facts and figures from the Snowden archive

2176 documents have been published to date

41 publications and broadcasters around the world have produced original reporting based on newly released documents.

The number of documents published, by year:
2013 – 51
2014 – 264
2015 – 222
2016 – 720
2017 – 568
2018 – 351 so far

The vast majority of published documents (some 1985) come from the NSA, but there are also – 136 from GCHQ, 13 from Canada’s CSE, 5 from New Zealand’s GCSB and a couple from Australia’s ASD. Last month, a document from Japan’s secretive DFS, became the first from that agency ever to be published.

If you take the Anglophone Five Eyes countries out of the mix, the countries most often mentioned in the Snowden documents are Iraq (which is referred to in 299 separate documents), Afghanistan (157), China (129), Germany (126) and Pakistan (116).

The most frequently referenced codename by quite some way is XKeyScore, which goes to show how important this internal search tool for “nearly everything” is for NSA. Access to XKeyScore is an important resource for NSA’s international partners and reporting has shown that it has been made available to analysts in Germany, Sweden and Japan as well as the Five Eyes countries.

This just scratches the surface of what you can do with the Snowden Document Search and Courage’s other Snowden resources. We are always interested to hear about how people are using the archive – if you’re doing something interesting, please get in touch!