What we learned from Edward Snowden

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy, Security threats

Snowden year oneEdward Snowden now holds a permanent place in the pantheon of US national security leakers, alongside the likes of Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning.

A former contractor for the US National Security Agency (NSA), Snowden made headlines around the world when he leaked thousands of confidential files detailing secretive NSA spying programs.

Now that it's been a year since the Snowden files emerged, after publication of a report in The Guardian blew the lid off the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, we thought we'd take a look back at what we've learned.

The revelations

The codenames of the NSA's vast data collection programs are now familiar to many - PRISM, Tempura, Upstream, XKeyscore.

The program called PRISM, explained in documents leaked by Snowden to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald in June 2013, collected data directly from the servers of the largest internet companies - including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft.

The troves of data swept up by the NSA are so enormous - billions of phone calls, text messages, emails, chats and images every day - that the NSA can only store some of it for short periods of time.

NSA logoXKeyscore is the NSA's network of 500 servers across the globe used to store the data collected from the internet and telecommunications traffic of nearly everyone on the planet.

The NSA's descriptions of XKeyscore say that it can "collect nearly everything a user does on the internet," from web searches to video chats.

Other programs revealed by Snowden's leaks include the NSA's collaboration with other spy agencies, including the UK's GCHQ, and others in France, Germany, Israel and Australia.

Most recently, we learned of the NSA's facial recognition program that scans millions of images gathered from websites, emails, text messages and chats to match suspects against photo ID databases.

The NSA dragnet leaves nothing that travels over the internet untouched.

The backlash

After The Guardian's first report, more revelations poured out in the media in the following weeks.

There was a swift backlash against NSA spying, from people in grassroots organizations, to the biggest tech companies, with repercussions both political and diplomatic.

Obama, image courtesy of ShutterstockIn the US, President Obama tried to soothe things over with allies such as Germany's Angela Merkel when it was revealed that the NSA had tapped phone conversations of world leaders.

In terms of domestic politics in the US, Obama has called for reforms in the way the NSA gathers data from Americans, and some of those reforms will keep US citizens from having their phone records and emails collected.

But efforts to curtail the NSA's power to collect data under US law won't be enough.

To ensure the privacy of communications that we take for granted as a part of our rights to freedom of speech and political association, we need to have more control over the way we use technology.

That means that we as individuals have to be more aware of how the services we use handle our data, and we need to have security that includes encryption for all our communications.

Companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook have made steps towards more encryption for our messages on those services - but many others need to follow their lead.

Snowden himself

This story would be far less complicated if the NSA leaker were anonymous - but Snowden's fame has made his actions hard to separate from his personality.

Some people consider Snowden's actions heroic - others call him a traitor.

Snowden's face is now iconic - we see everywhere the photo of Snowden that first introduced us to the bespectacled young man who opened our eyes to the NSA's secrets.

Given what we know now about the NSA, and the unfolding events of the past year, Snowden's actions will have an impact for a long time to come.

As for Snowden himself, he is seeking to leave Russia and find asylum, perhaps in Brazil - but Brazil might not want him due to its own concerns about relations with the US.

Let's hope that the facts of NSA surveillance don't become a secondary storyline to Snowden's personal tribulations.

Image of Edward Snowden courtesy of 360b / Shutterstock.com and President Obama courtesy of Shutterstock.

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5 Responses to What we learned from Edward Snowden

  1. Sammie · 488 days ago

    Still don't understand why the media keeps glorifying a wanted terrorist who messed with national security. People post on FB and they don't care but they make a big fuss when they hear about government surveillance. Isn't it time this hypocrisy is taken care of?

    • John Zorabedian · 488 days ago

      I think many journalists are sympathetic to Snowden's cause because national security leaks make the journalists who report on them a target for prosecution and intimidation.

      Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained in the UK for several hours as he tried to leave the country for his native Brazil - and The Guardian was pressured to destroy the Snowden documents it had obtained by UK government agents.

      Journalists are dedicated to openness and freedom of information - but many journalists are less willing to report on national security leaks because they might go to jail or face other repercussions.

    • Paul Williams · 485 days ago

      Because government has the power to brand someone a "terrorist" because they do something that is inconvenient, doesn't mean the government(s) are right: and in this case they are firmly in the wrong.

    • Samurai · 484 days ago

      This man is NOT a terrorist. The catch phrase "national security" is used too often and too conveniently for violations of the constitution. Just because it is big Govt doesn't give them all authority to violate every American's 4th amendment right. Govt should be held up to the standard of the law, i.e. the constitution, not exempt from it. All this guy did was remind the govt they are subject to the law, not above it. That is a patriot.

  2. Hugh Jorgen · 384 days ago

    Hmmmm.... here we go again

    All together now people........ "Bulk access to Metadata DOES NOT mean Mass Surveillance"

    Concerning Snowden.... we all have a view on what he is or what he thinks he achieved. This is what potentially has been achieved:

    1. Highlighted the deplorable NSA & Contractor Security (really...the NSA contracting out its most sensitive access to contractors/companies which were questionably vetted....what else haver they contracted out)!!!

    2. Changed target/criminal behaviour of the paedophiles, terrorists, criminals, foreign spies which law enforcement/agencies are lawfully targeting

    3. Pulled live operations against criminals, foreign operatives/operations to protect the lives of those undertaking investigations

    4. Reduction in foreign liaison/industry co-operation for law enforcement

    5. Unpublished data (ie: the 58,000 plus top secret files stolen by Snowden)...who has had access to the cache of information....assuming the Russians have seen everything (including the associated international criminals within the Russian Security Services) .....are we better or worse off for the fact.

    Remind me again (ie: any changes to laws) what has actually changed since the Snowden affair....apart from compromising security & investigations in the UK & US.... no really.... apart from being yesterdays news what has changed.

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About the author

John Zorabedian is a blogger, copywriter and editor at Sophos. He has a background in journalism, writing about technology, business, politics and culture. He lives and works in the Boston area.