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Edward Snowden Archive: University of Toronto project gives you access to all leaked NSA documents

Accessible, indexed and easily searchable archive is part of Andrew Clement's effort to explore issues of mass surveillance

Whistleblower Edward Snowden as depicted in Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alcatraz (photo by duluoz cats via flickr)

How much do you know about the American surveillance documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden – and how many of those National Security Agency documents have you read?

Now you can see everything – a complete, indexed, searchable and fully accessible archive of all NSA documents released by the exiled Snowden and published by media – at the University of Toronto.

“I initiated the Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive to help people understand better the mass state surveillance we are all exposed to,” said Professor Andrew Clement. “The many documents that Snowden released to journalists offer us an invaluable resource for learning about how government agencies, such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Canada's Communication Security Establishment (CSE), are spying electronically on our daily activities.”

Launched in partnership with the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the archive is just one part of an international effort led by the iSchool's Clement to develop constructive responses by iSchools around the world to the growing challenge of mass state surveillance.

public statement endorsed by Clement and faculty at iSchools across North America calls for universities to: develop curriculum that addresses issues of mass state surveillance and prepare students to understand better the surveillance to which they are exposed; invite NSA and other government officials as guest course speakers to address issues of mass state surveillance and respond to student questions; and invite NSA whistleblowers and journalists who have covered the NSA disclosures as guest speakers to address issues of mass state surveillance and respond to student questions.

Snowden, a former system administrator for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), leaked classified information from the NSA to select media in June 2013. Although the nearly 400 published documents are publicly available, until now they have been very difficult to search and make sense of as a whole. 

The leaked documents sparked an international conversation on surveillance, privacy and national security – all areas of Clement’s research interest – inspiring him to initiate a research collaboration beyond the walls of the University of Toronto to make it easier for anyone to find and search the documents all gathered in one place.

“I have spent the bulk of my career at UofT’s iSchool, during which time I founded several academic initiatives to study privacy invasive practices and possible remedies. I’ve challenged increasingly insidious surveillance practices, and advocated for Canadians’ privacy, access and other information rights,” said Clement. “I want to advance this pressing issue.”

Already, says Clement, journalists, academics and activists are finding the archive helpful in opening up new insights into the important but little known topic of state surveillance.

To design and build a publicly accessible, easy-to-use and searchable archive, Clement hired iSchool graduate George Raine and first-year iSchool student Jillian Harkness, who specialize in Archives and Records Management.

“In collaboration with CJFE, they described and indexed in a remarkably professional way all of the published documents in time for the March 4 launch,” said Clement. The duo are still adding refinements to the site, adding keywords, tweaking document descriptions, improving the interface etc. 

At the “Snowden Live: Canada and the Security State” event on March 4th, Canadians were invited to submit their questions to Snowden using #AskSnowden on Twitter. Snowden addressed a variety of concerns, including the implications of the documents, and why these leaks changed the way the government and citizens think of our privacy.

Following the Q&A with Snowden, Clement joined panelists Dave Seglins, senior reporter, CBC Investigative Unit, and Laura Tribe, national and digital programs lead, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, to discuss the implications of Snowden’s revelations for the country, and the future of digital surveillance in Canada.

Other supporters of this project include: Centre for Freedom of Expression, Faculty of Communications and Design, Ryerson University; Digital Curation Institute, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto; Surveillance Studies Centre, sociology department, Queen's University. The event was produced in partnership with Ryerson University and the CBC.

The director of the iSchool's Digital Curation Institute, Professor Christoph Becker, said the institute is glad to support this initiative.

"The revelations brought about by these documents raise serious questions about our information society. The documents are crucial evidence to support an informed public debate, and a comprehensive open archive is a much-needed resource to support this discourse."

Public Statement on Surveillance
In late March, Clement convened two sessions at the international iConference in California, entitled “After Snowden: An iSchool response to the challenges of (NSA) mass state surveillance”.

The sessions sought to facilitate productive discussions around the various challenges that mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) pose for the iSchool community, and how iSchoolers might respond, individually and collectively.

The result is a public statement endorsed by participants from many iSchools, identifying various actions to deal with the challenges.  

Clement said he hopes people will pursue responses appropriate to their circumstances, contribute further suggestions, continue the conversation on Twitter and celebrate each proposed action made into a reality.

Kathleen O'Brien is a writer with the iSchool, the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.