Opinion: For the sake of privacy, pardon Snowden

September 21, 2016

Timothy Edgar, Contributor

The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International have launched a campaign calling for President Obama to pardon former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

I support that campaign, but not because I simply see Mr. Snowden as a hero and the NSA as a villain. I've served on both sides, first as the national security counsel for the ACLU and then later as the director of privacy and civil liberties for the White House National Security Staff during Mr. Obama's first term. 

The NSA's operations are vital to national security, but they need strong controls. Since 2013, our government has corrected its course regarding several surveillance policies that posed serious privacy risks to American citizens and people all around the world. Those reforms would not have happened without Snowden. 

Opponents of a pardon for Snowden have conceded that his decision to release top-secret government documents did result in changes to a domestic program of bulk collection of American telephone records, but they argue he should still serve time in jail for disclosing programs that revealed foreign spying operations.

That argument fails to account for the global dimensions of privacy. Current distinctions in the law between data collected inside the US and data collected abroad are relics from an era of analog telephones.

Americans' data is far more likely to be overseas now than when our surveillance laws were written in the 1970s. Still, the NSA's surveillance outside the US is still governed only by internal rules. The Snowden disclosures laid bare the risks to American privacy as the result of the NSA's overseas data collection practices.

But it's not only Americans' privacy that matters. We should consider the privacy of foreign citizens, too.