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February 2014

Judging from the polls I've seen, the country couldn't be more divided over whether Edward Snowden did the right, if not heroic, thing when he blew the whistle on the National Security Administration for taking mass surveillance to a whole new level of intrusiveness. One online poll conducted in October showed that 49 percent of Americans felt Snowden "should be condemned for publicizing security activities and threatening western intelligence operations," while 51 percent said he "should be commended for letting the public know that our governments are running electronic surveillance programs that threaten people's privacy." (In the same Angus Reid Global poll, widespread government surveillance was deemed unacceptable by 60 percent.)

Of course, as both a concerned citizen and the editor of this magazine, I've had my own views about Snowden. But in recent weeks, I must admit, those views have substantially changed. Initially, I saw him as neither a hero nor a villain, but rather as a foolish young man who had thrown his life away for a hopeless cause. Now, however, I'm inclined to concede that in one important way he has already achieved a great victory: At least now the NSA is under unprecedented pressure to explain itself. As Snowden himself confided to a Washington Post reporter shortly before Christmas, "I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself."

Public opinion will certainly help determine whether meaningful reforms are ever implemented. But it's not the only variable. And in this month's feature "Reining In the NSA", writer Bill Blum shows how Snowden's revelations have given new life to a series of legal challenges mounted against the intelligence agency. One of the lawyers most deeply involved in this effort is Cindy A. Cohn. As legal director of San Francisco's Electronic Frontier Foundation, she has been fighting the NSA's domestic surveillance practices since 2006.

Also this month, Thomas Peele reports on an intriguing class action filed by a pair of Texas lawyers ("Giving Google a Piece of Your Mind"). Not only does the case have profound implications for online privacy, but if successful it could trigger a payout of $10.5 trillion in damages. The suit alleges that Google - in pursuit of its commercial interests and without any help from the government - is violating federal wiretap laws and state privacy statutes by mining the contents of untold email messages. Needless to say, Google is not taking this legal challenge lightly.

And finally, as part of our Legally Speaking interview series, we include an excerpt from my recent conversation with Richard Goldstone ("The Politics of International Justice"). Goldstone, a retired South African judge, played a pivotal role in his country's transition from apartheid to majority rule, and later served as the chief prosecutor for two international war crimes tribunals.

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