Snowden’s Impact on Internet Security

Whether you view Edward Snowden as traitor or whistleblower – or something in between – as time passes, one thing becomes clear: Snowden’s actions have started a dialogue on internet security and privacy that stretches well beyond the United States. It is a debate that, in many ways, is really just beginning and whose repercussions will be felt for many years – perhaps decades – to come.

Snowden is the former National Security Agency (NSA) contract employee who, this past June, released a huge cache of top-secret documents related to US government covert surveillance programs on its own citizens and on various governments and government entities around the world.

Snowden is currently holed-up in Russia, the beneficiary of a one-year asylum granted him by Russian President Vladimir Putin, following a lengthy (and much publicized) time in limbo at a Russian airport. Before that, he had fled from the US to China – specifically Hong Kong – where the government refused to detain him despite strong requests from the US to do so.

Snowden’s leaked information on an NSA program called PRISM revealed that some of America’s largest internet and technology companies, without warrant or even signature, released large amounts of private customer data at the behest of the NSA. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, Skype, AOL, YouTube – all of implicated in Snowden’s documents – and others cried foul, with some claiming no knowledge of PRISM.

According to, for its part, Microsoft doesn’t deny participating in PRISM, but contends that its role has been distorted and misunderstood in the media. In July, the company wrote the White House requesting permission to reveal more information about PRISM, specifically, what Microsoft’s role was and how much and what types of information it released.

The responses from the American tech sector and the outrage ringing out the world over illustrate what Esquire writer Charles Pierce has dubbed “The Snowden Effect.” New York University Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has formerly defined the Snowden effect as follows: “Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.”

The phenomenon has already had a significant impact on the US Congress, with both Republicans and Democrats alike voicing concerns that government surveillance in the wake of 911 has gone too far. Any issue that can rally wide support from both sides of the aisle in our hopelessly divided Congress is likely a measure of public sentiment on the issue.

In June, Erik Kain at Forbes argued that the Edward Snowden revelations made Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox One gaming console a scary proposition indeed. The company had previously announced the console would require an always-on internet connection and an always-connected Kinect gaming camera to function. Consumers were outraged and Microsoft backtracked on the always-on internet requirement in June. Earlier this month, the company also reversed the Kinect requirement.

Considering Microsoft’s role in PRISM, the thought of bringing a Microsoft-branded console with such potentially intrusive features into one’s home doubtlessly conjured thoughts of NSA spying for many would-be buyers.

Microsoft’s reversal on Xbox One is just one of several real-world impacts the Snowden leaks have had on internet security and privacy and the public’s view of them.

By Frank Winston, SoftActivity

Photo by DonkeyHotey

September 17th, 2013