Just a year ago today, the first news came out about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency. Within days, it was revealed that Edward Snowden, a contractor working with the NSA, was the source of the disclosure, and the world we live in has changed greatly.
Over the course of the past year, what started as a single disclosure about NSA surveillance activities has exploded into a plethora of information about how the U.S. government has been listening in on the activities of Americans and others around the world. The result has been nothing short of a global conversation about privacy in the modern world and a re-evaluation of how individuals and organizations can secure themselves from surveillance.
A year ago, I found myself serving as a judge for the Red Hat Innovation awards at the Red Hat Summit and one of nominees I was onstage with was Booz Allen Hamilton, the same firm that Snowden had worked for. I joked mildly onstage about the rough week that Booz Allen Hamilton was likely having, given their connection to Snowden.
A year ago, no one could have known that the initial disclosure was just the beginning of a series of disclosures that have continued to emerge over the past 12 months. The initial disclosure was around a program known as Prism, which is a bulk metadata collection effort for the communications of Americans.
The disclosure about Prism sparked a large public outcry and there was much fear about the widespread impact it could have. A month later, in July at the Black Hat security conference, I found myself in the front row, just 5 feet away from General Keith Alexander, then-director of the NSA.
Alexander had come to Black Hat to detail and defend the Prism program. He referred to Prism as the Section 702 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendment. He stressed that it operated with full oversight and is a lawful intercept program for foreign intelligence.
“We have a metadata program that helps us to connect the dots in the least intrusive way we can,” Alexander said at the time.
During his Black Hat session, Alexander was interrupted by a heckler who yelled out, “Read the Constitution.” Alexander responded, “I have, and you should, too.”
The U.S. Constitution is something that Snowden has wrapped himself in as justification for his actions. In a March interview, Snowden responded to a question about oversight from World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee.
“The problem is when the overseers aren’t interested in oversight and Senate and House Intelligence committees are cheerleading for the NSA instead of holding them to account,” Snowden said.
Snowden’s disclosures have not fallen on deaf ears, leading to meager reform with the government itself. In January, President Obama pledged to curb NSA privacy concerns. In May, the USA Freedom Act was passed in a bid to limit the risks of bulk collection of Americans’ communications though questions still remain about privacy.
While reform is happening somewhat within the U.S. government, Snowden’s disclosures have also had an impact in the private sector. A May report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found improved transparency from American companies about government data requests.
“This year, we saw major improvements in industry standards for informing users about government data requests, publishing transparency reports and fighting for the user in Congress,” the EFF report stated. “These changes in policy were likely a reaction to the releases of the last year, which repeatedly pointed to a close relationship between tech companies and the National Security Agency.”
Perhaps the biggest impact that Snowden’s revelations have had from a technology perspective is the emphasis on encryption as a way to help individuals and organizations protect themselves.
A panel of the world’s leading cryptographers at the RSA conference in February emphasized that Snowden’s disclosures prove that cryptography still works.
It’s a sentiment that cryptography expert Bruce Schneier echoed in an interview with eWEEK at RSA about what should be done with the NSA. “Cryptography still gives the NSA trouble,” Schneier said.
Snowden himself has been a strong advocate for the use of encryption as a way to help protect privacy. “By doing end-to-end encryption, you force global passive adversaries to go after the end points and the individual computers,” Snowden said. “The result of that is a more constitutional and carefully overseen intelligence-gathering model.”
One year ago, it was likely not possible to completely fathom the true impact of Snowden and his disclosures about the NSA and its activities. The lasting impact will likely be something that historians will be able to debate decades from now, as government policies and technologies evolve in the post-Snowden era.
Whether history judges Snowden to be a patriot or a traitor, the post-Snowden era is one in which awareness of government surveillance is at the forefront of Americans’ consciousness.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.