Opinion: Snowden’s revelations sparked critical debate

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Caitlin Borgmann

Tomorrow night in Helena, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana will host a free advance screening of Oliver Stone’s new film, “Snowden,” at the Myrna Loy Center.

Most people have heard of Edward Snowden, but few understand how his disclosures sparked a critical global debate about freedom of expression, privacy, secrecy and the proper limits of government surveillance.

Snowden revealed a bloated federal surveillance apparatus that secretly invaded the privacy of hundreds of millions of Americans and recklessly compromised the security of the internet.

The ACLU brought a lawsuit within days after the first news story about Snowden’s disclosures. The lawsuit challenged a program in which the National Security Agency collected data about every single phone call made or received in the United States. A federal court ruled the call-tracking program was illegal.

Soon thereafter, Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act, ending the government’s bulk collection of phone metadata and reining in its surveillance powers for the first time in decades. This is just one example of how Snowden’s disclosures have made a difference.

Montanans are particularly attuned to the importance of privacy. Our state’s constitution explicitly declares, “The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.”

The ACLU-Montana fights for the privacy rights of all Montanans, including against secret, mass government surveillance of the kind Snowden revealed. For example, the ACLU has issued a Freedom of Information Act request to all Montana law enforcement agencies about use of Stingray devices and automated license plate readers.

Stingrays are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby.

Nationally, the ACLU has found that law enforcement’s use of Stingrays is often shrouded in secrecy. The ACLU-Montana will fight to ensure transparency and oversight over any use of such devices in Montana. And, as we approach the 2017 legislative session, the ACLU-Montana will continue to support measures that protect privacy and fight those that infringe on this crucial constitutional right.

Learning about Edward Snowden’s contributions to the debate over government surveillance should help us all understand and appreciate the importance of protecting privacy in the digital age.

Caitlin Borgmann is the executive director of the ACLU of Montana.

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