The hard-to-believe story of Edward Snowden got a little more unbelievable last week, when an NSA memo revealed that a civilian employee at the agency resigned after it was learned Snowden had persuaded him to share his security password.
“At Mr. Snowden’s request, the civilian entered his password at Mr. Snowden’s computer terminal. Unbeknownst to the civilian, Mr. Snowden was able to capture the password, allowing him even greater access to classified information,” the agency wrote in the Feb. 10 memo to congressional committees. “The civilian was not aware that Mr. Snowden intended to unlawfully disclose classified information. However, by sharing his PKI [public key infrastructure] certificate, he failed to comply with security obligations.”
The memo also said that a member of the military and a contractor had been barred from NSA offices for helping Snowden make off with confidential documents.
If this is true, the NSA memo puts Snowden’s actions in a very different light. The former IT contractor has denied duping coworkers into giving up their passwords, but the memo seems to refute that.
Getting to the truth of the Snowden affair is difficult right now, since he’s holed up in Russia and rarely gives interviews.
Some of the information he leaked is now being viewed in a new light. According to reports last week, the NSA collects data on less than 30 percent of all U.S. cell phone data, much less than originally reported.
Stories about the American surveillance networked were shocking to some at first. Now, they seem routine. Barring a revelation that he’s keeping in his back pocket, the worst of the damage caused by Snowden is likely done – although Glenn Greenwald, the journalist from the British newspaper The Guardian who enabled Snowden to reveal the extent of NSA surveillance, claims there’s a great deal more information Snowden can reveal.
As the saga enters this stage, it’s now possible to assess the legacy that Snowden and his actions have left. A close look at the affair shows that he got plenty of media attention, disrupted American surveillance, changed U.S. data mining policy, and caused serious rifts between traditional allies. Not bad for an unknown IT worker whose motives are still being questioned and debated.
Does Snowden want to throw gas on a fire just to see how long it takes to put it out? Does he aspire to be the next Julian Assange and hold court in the deep web? Or is he a true believer that big data mining – whether by government or American Express – should be stopped and he’s the guy to do it?
In the end, Europe will likely back down from the threat of developing its own proprietary Internet backbone that excludes information from passing through the U.S. ICANN system.
It will soon occur to both Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, the leaders of Germany and France, respectively, who are concocting this scheme, that any system can be hacked and it’s silly to try to reinvent the wheel.
Here are three reasons Snowden’s revelations might fade into history.
1. Technology will always be a step ahead. The NSA used some of the most cutting edge technology in the world to conduct their surveillance. Snowden’s revelations have given the world a glimpse of what the United States is doing. But now that the revelations have been made public, it’s a near certainty that the NSA has moved on. Surveillance technology since the Snowden leaks have shown that the United States can track all people in a certain area for several hours after they have left. The technology that Snowden leaked, by comparison, is already out of date. It’s logical to assume that surveillance will only get more sophisticated - and more secret - from here. It will take another Edward Snowden a few years down the line to reveal the NSA’s true reach.
2. No real reform has yet come from Snowden’s leaks. President Obama had promised minor changes to NSA surveillance programs, but the wholesale overhaul Snowden claims he wants has yet to come. While privacy remains a concern to the general public, there has not been a reform movement substantial enough to get the majority of lawmakers to demand substantial change. The biggest impact Snowden has had on surveillance is he let the rest of the world know how the United States does it. NSA officials claim he gave al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations the U.S. playbook and those organizations are operating differently to avoid scrutiny.
3. Snowden is a problematic hero. If the NSA report is to be believed, Snowden lied when he said he didn’t get other employees to give him their passwords. But this isn’t the first time he’s contradicted himself: He said he wouldn’t exchange documents for asylum, but he has done so twice - once in China and once in Brazil. There’s also the open question of how he got to, and why he is in, Russia. A new book by British journalist Luke Harding, The Snowden Files, reports that Snowden’s lawyer told him the reason the NSA leaker ended up in Russia is “complicated.” Why? What’s the backstory? We may never know.
Snowden started an important conversation about American surveillance – but it appears as if that chatter is coming to an end, or at least getting noticeably fainter.
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