Last updated: November 25, 2019
Snowden Leaks: What Did He Change, Exactly?
Disclosure: Your support helps keep the site running! We earn a referral fee for some of the services we recommend on this page. Learn more
Until very recently, the ability of any one person to compile information about others was fairly limited. That's no longer the case.
There's been global embrace of internet technology on an unprecedented scale. Communication, financial transactions, pictures, social media, even whole businesses have all moved online. But where does that information go? Where is your data stored, when Google saves your passwords or when you send a message via Facebook to your friend? How do you know it's secure? How do you even know who has access to it?
And therein lies the problem.
We've enormously developed the ability to interact with others online, without the ability to control who can listen. And as Edward Snowden found out, there are definitely some people listening.
Edward Snowden is a whistle blower. He was a government employee who leaked documents from the NSA's surveillance programs to the media, exposing the depth and breadth of US government infiltration into both its domestic citizens' lives and those in the international community. Basically, parts of the US government broke a whole host of their own laws, and Edward Snowden called them out.
The documents he leaked reveal a rabbit warren of government surveillance, including PRISM, the program that (allegedly) lets US intelligence agencies hack into popular companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple.
This much is more or less agreed upon. What makes this case special is the sheer size of it. In the same way the depth and breadth of US government surveillance is unprecedented, so too is the scale of Edward Snowden's leak, releasing hundreds of thousands of documents to the media.
And this sort of exposure doesn't simply disappear overnight. We've put together the whole story for you, including when it all happened, what's at stake, and the various (and variously expensive) effects of Snowden's actions. A lot of government surveillance is still going on. But as you'll see, Snowden's whistle blowing has undeniably changed the way we conceptualize information, with very real consequences, both now and for the future.
Snowden's Global Impact
How private are your emails and phone calls? Is someone who breaks the law supposedly to protect his fellow citizens a criminal or a hero?
Who is Edward Snowden?
- A computer whiz without formal qualifications.
- Joined the U.S. Army in 2003. Discharged after both legs were broken during training.
- Worked for IT security at the CIA. By 2007, he held a CIA post with diplomatic cover in Geneva.
- Claims he was disillusioned by the U.S. government’s actions while in Geneva, so left the CIA in 2009.
- Started working for NSA contractors, including Booz Allen, allegedly to gain access to classified materials for evidence.
- Spoke about military cyber security at conferences.
Snowden's Alleged Crimes
- Snowden has been charged with espionage under the 1917 Espionage Act:
- Government property theft.
- Willful communication of classified communications intelligence.
- Unauthorized communication of national defense information.
- 1917 Espionage Act
- Meant to curb dangerous treason and sabotage during World War I.
- Those convicted under the Act of sharing “information relating to national defense” with anyone who could seek to damage the US could be punished by imprisonment or death.
- Each criminal charge under the act carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
- May 20 - Snowden leaves his home in Hawaii for Hong Kong.
- June 5, 2013 - British newspaper The Guardian announces a leak of classified documents from the NSA.
- June 6, 2013 - Existence of Prism, a program that supposedly gives the NSA access to Google, Apple, Facebook, and other company’s data, is reported. The companies deny the access.
- June 9, 2013 - Snowden named as the leaker to the world media.
- June 12, 2013 - Snowden reveals that the NSA reportedly spied on citizens of Hong Kong.
- June 20, 2013 - NSA’s domestic spying rules leaked to the public.
- June 23, 2013 - Snowden leaves Hong Kong for Moscow to avoid the U.S./Hong Kong extradition treaty.
- The U.S. revokes Snowden’s travel documents, stranding him in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for 39 days before Russia offers him asylum for one year.
- November 2013 - The White House decides Snowden will receive no clemency.
- December 2013 - NSA’s hacking capabilities published.
- January 2014 - President Obama defends the NSA but orders Attorney General Eric Holder to review for surveillance program reforms.
- January-February 2014 - Information on “dirty” British spy tactics, including “honey traps” and computer viruses, leaks to the public based on documents released by Snowden
- March 6, 2014 - Pentagon announces that damage control from the NSA leak may cost billions of dollars.
- August 2014 - Snowden suggests NSA fears an unknown, extremely damaging document that could be released.
The Leak Heard 'Round the World
- How citizens see it:
- Global citizens are split over whether Snowden’s actions are heroic or treasonous.
- According to a Reuters poll:
- 31% of Americans thought he was a whistle-blower.
- 23% said he was a traitor.
- Almost half could not judge.
- The UK warned airlines not to let Snowden fly into the UK.
- People in Hong Kong protested to show support for Snowden.
- Snowden’s Asylum
- Snowden requested asylum from 27 countries, many turned him down.
- Iceland was attractive for its protection of Internet freedom, but he was declined since he was not located in Iceland at the time of the request.
- Ecuador was open to asylum, but his refugee papers had authorization problems and did not allow him to continue his journey from Hong Kong to Moscow to Ecuador to complete his asylum request.
- China, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Brazil did not respond to his request.
- India declined his request, saying they saw “no reason to accede to the Snowden request.”
- Europe was either “lukewarm” or outright refused his requests.
- Russia’s Vladimir Putin gained a sizable propaganda victory against the US with Snowden taking asylum in Moscow.
- Strained relationships with allies:
- Relationships between President Obama and European allies became strained.
- The NSA was allegedly spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
- Such alleged spying activities helped lead Brazil to create its “Internet Constitution” that outlines the rights and duties of individuals, governments, and businesses to keep Internet freedom “open and decentralized.”
- The revelations also caused President Rousseff to cancel a Brazilian state visit to Washington.
- Negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), a foreign-policy priority for the US, were strained due to the spying allegations.
- French President Francois Hollande refused negotiations of any kind until they had security guarantees from the US.
- Britain’s first intelligence hearing
- With security and intelligence practices in question, MI5, MI6, and GCHQ had public hearings before Parliament for the first time in history.
- Questions covered electronic communications interception, agency oversight, and the impacts of newspaper stories from the Snowden leak.
- Civil liberties groups claim the hearing was inadequate and lacked probing questions into the “grand breach of trust.”
- Verizon and Germany
- Verizon had been working with Germany’s federal agencies, but Snowden claimed US intelligence used telecom companies to access global data, including spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
- German government ended their contract with Verizon.
- Verizon insists they followed Germany’s data protection guidelines.
- First sign that US companies are losing business due to Snowden’s allegations.
- Boeing and Brazil
- Strained relationship between Brazil and US after leaked spying reports.
- Fighter jet defense contract plans, worth $4.5 billion, between Brazil and US company Boeing canceled.
- Meant to supply Brazilian air force with 36 jets by 2020.
- Contract had been in negotiation for over 10 years.
- Contract instead went to Swedish company Saab.
- Costs were cited as main reasons, but after so many years and a relatively quick decision, Brazilian mistrust in a US company likely played a part in the choice.
- A Brazilian government source said, “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans.”
- Business struggles at least partly attributed to the Snowden leaks.
- Google and India
- Google planned to work with Indian election officials to improve voter registration.
- Work canceled after the Snowden leaks.
- Cisco and China
- Cisco router sales dropped 10% in China following the Snowden leaks.
- AT&T and Europe
- European regulators threaten to block AT&T’s possible purchase of Vodafone after the Snowden leaks.
- Apple and China
- China called the iPhone a “threat to national security” partly because it tracks locations.
- Afraid of sensitive data, such as economic and “state secrets” information, collected by iPhone usage.
- Intel and Russia
- Russian government doesn’t trust Intel and AMD processors.
- Plans to replace the Intel systems with Russian Baikal processors and Linux following the Snowden leaks.
- The Cloud
- Concern grows for data stored in the cloud
- Especially after data-mining PRISM project revealed by Snowden
- 57% of senior IT leaders cited data security as a major concern in 2013, which rose to 61% in 2014
- 10% of non-US business have pulled from contracts with US cloud providers after the Snowden leaks
- $35 billion expected to be lost by US cloud providers over the next 3 years
- A Cloud Industry Forum survey asked 250 UK IT staff and business execs about cloud usage
- In light of Snowden’s revelations:
- 59% had mild to extreme concern for corporate data in the cloud
- ⅓ said because of the revelations they changed data security measures
- 17% changed where data is stored
- Almost 10% changed cloud providers
- Tech company boom
- Some tech companies worldwide find success in meeting data security concerns of users.
- German email provider
- Germany chosen for added data privacy laws
- Created as a direct result of US-based encryption service Lavabit closing down in August 2013
- Lavabit was used by Snowden
- US government sued Lavabit to reveal data related to Snowden
- German laws would not allow Lavaboom to have to reveal such data
- Lavaboom projects around 15,000 global users by end of 2014
- Deutsche Post
- German post company established 500 years ago
- Released SIMSme: a free & secure instant messaging app featuring encryption
- German company based in Hamburg
- Developed an encrypted private cloud solution
- Has promised 100% data sovereignty
- Crowdfunded so quickly that many would-be investors didn’t get the chance
- Swiss financial cryptography
- Well-known financial haven for years
- Developing specialized financial encryption in Switzerland’s “Crypto Valley”
Damage Control for the Department of Defense
- A report titled “DoD Information Review Task Force-2: Initial Assessment, Impacts Resulting from the Compromise of Classified Material by a former NSA Contractor” was prepared in December 2013.
- Released in early 2014
- Had only 12 of its 39 pages declassified
- Those 12 pages were heavily adjusted
- The report calls Snowden’s damage “staggering” and “grave” without further details.
- The House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers spoke out.
- Claimed most documents allegedly leaked by Snowden put troops from the four major branches of the military at risk.
- Claimed Snowden took 1.7 million documents
- Snowden’s attorney responded.
- No way to prove exactly how many documents were taken
- Claimed the government’s assessment is based on guesswork
- Currently, there is no known evidence that Snowden leaked NSA documents to a foreign adversary.
The impact of Snowden’s actions continues to cause issues on a global scale, affecting governments, businesses, and even private citizens. Although the full scale of the NSA leak may never be measured, Snowden’s global impact is undeniable and, so far, unrelenting.
- Profile: Edward Snowden - bbc.co.uk
- Reality Check: What Was Edward Snowden's True Impact? - nbcnews.com
- Pentagon Report: Scope of Intelligence Compromised by Snowden 'Staggering' - theguardian.com
- Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden - nbcnews.com
- The Snowden Fiels: British Spies Used Sex and 'Dirty Tricks' - msnbcmedia.msn.com
- U.S. Charges Snowden with Espionage - washingtonpost.com
- The Hidden History of the Espionage Act - slate.com
- The Most Wanted Man in the World - wired.com
- Snowden: The Worst NSA Revelations Are Yet to Come - gizmodo.com
- Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower - nytimes.com
- World Reacts to Edward Snowden's Leak - globaltimes.cn
- Merkel Calls for 'Sensible Talks' over Alleged US Spying on Germany - theguardian.com
- Brazilian President Postpones Washington Visit over NSA Spying - theguardian.com
- Asylum Requests - edwardsnowden.com
- Brazilian Congress Passes Internet Bill of Rights - reuters.com
- The Snowden Effect: 8 Things That Happened Only Because Of The NSA Leaks - huffingtonpost.com
- Questioning of Spy Agency Chiefs 'Wouldn't Have Scared a Puppy' - theguardian.com
- Irked by N.S.A., Germany Cancels Deal With Verizon - nytimes.com
- Brazil's President Condemns NSA Spying - washingtonpost.com
- The 'Snowden Effect' Continues As China Claims Apple's iPhone A Threat To National Security - forbes.com
- The Snowden Effect: How It's Still Denting Business Confidence in Cloud Security - zdnet.com
- For German, Swiss Privacy Start-Ups, a Post-Snowden Boom - blogs.wsj.com
- 3-Saab Wins Brazil Jet Deal After NSA Spying Sours Boeing Bid - reuters.com
- 'Snowden Effect' Threatens U.S. Tech Industry's Global Ambitions - huffingtonpost.com
- Timeline of Edward Snowden's Revelations - america.aljazeera.com
- Greenwald: NSA Leaker Snowden Has No Whistleblower Protection - politifact.com