The Schwartz Report

Blog archive

Edward Snowden: No Regrets Two Years After First NSA Leaks

Two years ago, Edward Snowden took it upon himself to release classified documents that revealed widespread surveillance activities by United States and foreign governments, most notably the National Security Agency. In so doing, Snowden became one of the most wanted fugitives by U.S. law enforcement.  Yet he also became the IT industry's most famous martyr for putting the spotlight on how the government was "monitoring the private activities of ordinary citizens who had done nothing wrong."  

Snowden reflected on the impact of his actions in an op-ed column published last Thursday in The New York Times.  The revelations of programs like PRISM outraged privacy experts and IT decision makers alike, making them wonder if data stored in the cloud and their electronic communications were secure. To its credit, Microsoft Chief Counsel Brad Smith led an effort to fight back, as I noted last week following Congress's long battle to put some limits on The Patriot Act, which officially expired June 1.

"Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing -- that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations," Snowden admitted.  "Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong." Despite violating key espionage laws, the former NSA contractor Snowden marveled at the rapid impact of his actions. "In a single month, the N.S.A.'s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress," he noted of the initial fallout of his revelations. "After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack. Even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated. This is the power of an informed public."

Two years later, the beat goes on, he added, pointing to the impact of his ongoing leaks. "Ending the mass surveillance of private phone calls under the Patriot Act is a historic victory for the rights of every citizen, but it is only the latest product of a change in global awareness," he wrote. "Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities. The United Nations declared mass surveillance an unambiguous violation of human rights. In Latin America, the efforts of citizens in Brazil led to the Marco Civil, an Internet Bill of Rights. Recognizing the critical role of informed citizens in correcting the excesses of government, the Council of Europe called for new laws to protect whistle-blowers."

For sure, the recent changes to the Patriot Act with the new Freedom Act are the equivalent of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Still, it's a step in the right direction. Snowden also lamented the way the IT security industry has responded. "Technologists have worked tirelessly to reengineer the security of the devices that surround us, along with the language of the Internet itself," he noted. Secret flaws in critical infrastructure that had been exploited by governments to facilitate mass surveillance have been detected and corrected. Basic technical safeguards such as encryption -- once considered esoteric and unnecessary -- are now enabled by default in the products of pioneering companies like Apple, ensuring that even if your phone is stolen, your private life remains private. "

Despite the changes enacted in wake of Snowden's actions, he still used privileged access to classified systems making him a traitor by the letter of the law. The ability for anyone in an organization with unfettered access has put IT decision makers on notice as well that their information systems are at risk. Initial reaction to the revelations two years ago made many organizations wary that data they presumed safe from prying eyes, was subject to backdoor penetration from the Feds.

I recently asked noted security technology expert Bruce Schneier, who I've known for many years, whether he believed Snowden was a traitor or a hero. The silence following my question was deafening and I suddenly felt like the journalist asking a quarterback who just threw an interception at the Super Bowl that cost his team the game how he felt. While Schneier wasn't going to give me a sound bite, he gave me an opaque response. "I don't care about the person. What matters is the documents," he said. "That question will be answered in 20 years by history." Ok, but did Snowden do the right thing by breaking the law and disclosing what was going on? "Yes," Schneier said.

Reading Snowden's op-ed piece, Snowden appears to feel the same way, having marked the June 4 anniversary by revealing that U.S. has expanded its spying initiatives at the border to find hackers.  "The balance of power is beginning to shift," he concluded in his op-ed column. "With each court victory, with every change in the law, we demonstrate facts are more convincing than fear."

Do you see Snowden as a traitor or have his disclosures of wrongdoings made him worthy of indemnification?



Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 06/08/2015 at 10:45 AM


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe on YouTube