Snowden: The Year’s Most Influential Tech Figure

A screencap from The Guardian’s initial video interview with Snowden.

Lots of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and developers made headlines in 2013—but in hindsight, Edward Snowden will likely stand as this year’s most influential figure in technology.

In June, Snowden began feeding top-secret documents detailing the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to The Guardian and other newspapers. Much of that information, downloaded by Snowden while he served as a system administrator at an NSA outpost in Hawaii, suggested that the U.S. government swept up massive amounts of information on ordinary Americans as part of its broader operations.

One of the NSA projects described in the documents, PRISM, allegedly siphons information from the databases of nine major technology companies: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. (In emails to Slashdot and other media outlets, as well as postings on their respective corporate blogs, many of these companies denied involvement with PRISM.) Another project reportedly captures metadata from millions of phone calls placed around the world, which can be data-mined to produce insights into individuals’ communications networks.

Over the next seven months, a steady trickle of Snowden documents led to further revelations: that the NSA and its British equivalent, the GCHQ, spied on a variety of public figures; that the U.S. government had managed to obtain total access to iPhones; that government datacenters continue to hold massive amounts of phone-call metadata; that Google and Yahoo had been infiltrated by the NSA without their knowledge. Those revelations (and more) sparked months of debate over privacy and security, and whether the potential risk of abuse by surveillance agencies with powerful tools is worth the presumed protections from terrorism that those tools provide.

In response, President Barack Obama announced in December that he plans on reining in the NSA’s surveillance programs, but won’t reveal exact steps until 2014. “I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA. And… to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence, ” he told television reporter Chris Matthews during a taped interview for MSNBC, according to Politico. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that the NSA isn’t constrained by laws when it comes to operating outside the United States.

Whatever one’s feelings on the debate over privacy and security, it’s undeniable that Snowden’s documents have increased general awareness of online vulnerability; but whether that’s sparked an increased use of countermeasures—including encryption tools—is another matter entirely. Certainly there’s a lot of misinformation out there. “A lot of people have been contacting me talking about private browsing modes as a defense against NSA surveillance,” Dave Maass, media relations coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), wrote in an email to Slashdot soon after the first Snowden documents leaked online. “Of course, private browsing modes are meant to avoid leaving records of one’s web browsing history—on one’s own computer—and that’s basically the extent of it! So people are very often missing the idea of what is meant to defend against what.”

The EFF and other privacy-minded organizations recommend tools such as HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, a communications protocol for secure communication over a network) and Tor (a network that relies on relays that make it difficult to trace a user’s Internet activity); there are also communication and storage platforms that offer end-to-end encryption. (Those host-proof solutions offer security in exchange for some measure of inconvenience. If you lose your access credentials, your data is almost certainly toast: few highly secure services include a “Forgot Your Password?” link, which can be easily engineered to reset a password and username without the account owner’s knowledge.)

In the wake of Snowden’s data-dump, tech giants such as Google and Yahoo are moving to encrypt all their data, both in movement and at rest. That could have an enormous trickle-down effect that changes the fundamental nature of the Web, from how advertisers monitor and deliver ads to the ways that developers build the next generation of messaging and email apps. When you consider the sheer amount of money, time, and code that’ll be invested over the next few years in encryption and encryption-breaking, it’s clear that Snowden’s influence will be felt for quite some time to come—even if the man himself is trapped in Russian exile.


Image: The Guardian