The Lasting Impact of Snowden’s Revelations

Ten years ago, Edward Snowden revealed the massive surveillance programs of the US intelligence agency NSA and its allies. He ended up stranded in Moscow where he still lives today. What impact have his revelations had?

Snowden: Turning Suspicions into Certainties

Occasionally, Edward Snowden still receives applause in the US, like in June 2022 at a CoinDesk conference on cryptocurrencies. Snowden joined via video from Moscow and, when asked about the impact of his revelations, he stated:

“Before 2013, there were experts, scientists, who understood that this mass surveillance was possible, that it probably happened. But it was only a suspicion. In 2013, it became a certainty that the world had changed, that this was reality.”

Hero or Traitor?

Looking back, is Snowden a hero or a traitor? Erik Dahl, a former intelligence officer and current professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, believes both terms are too extreme:

“He didn’t act to work against the enemies of the US. Although it hardly benefits him today that he has become a Russian citizen”, Dahl says. “On the other hand, he broke the law and committed a breach of secrecy.”

According to Dahl, Snowden can only become a hero if he returns to the US and faces the consequences of his actions: “Then, from my point of view, he would be a real hero.”

What Interests Intelligence Services

Political scientist Thomas Rid, who teaches at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, analyzed and cataloged all of Snowden’s nearly 2,700 documents, which equate to around 4,500 pages of documents. According to Rid, the US has impressive capabilities in counter-espionage.

The NSA has developed “sophisticated methods” to detect rival services on networks into which they themselves have infiltrated, says Rid. When the NSA breaks into a computer network, it first wants to know who else has infiltrated the network. If it detects another infiltrator, it asks whether that infiltrator is also being monitored, to “not only learn something about their target but also about what interests them.”

In terms of global intelligence, Rid regards the so-called Five Eyes, the intelligence community of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, as unique: “This community, this ‘intelligence community’ across five countries, is extremely creative. I think it is extremely difficult for other services – Germany, but also rival services such as the Chinese – to be as agile and innovative as the Five Eyes.”

What Works and What Doesn’t Among Partners?

The Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA had also intercepted the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. How reliable are the US as partners from a German perspective?
Spying among Allies: A Fact

According to intelligence expert Rid, it is a fact that allies occasionally spy on each other. On the other hand, one must also consider that intelligence services share their findings with each other and point out events that warrant further investigation. For example, the German government actually learned about the 2015 Bundestag hack from the British.

At the end of the day, everyone who uses the internet or services like WhatsApp or Signal has benefited from the insights gained from the Snowden leaks, says Rid, through newly developed encryption technologies. “Even if one considers Snowden to be a traitor or thinks he did the wrong thing, one must still acknowledge that internet security has generally improved due to these revelations.”

The Next Leak – Only a Matter of Time

What 21-year-old US soldier Jack Teixeira recently posted on a gaming platform is quite different from Snowden, emphasizes Rid. In the latest case, it is not about technical files, but about texts, intelligence reports, for example, on details of the war against Ukraine – apparently posted online by Teixeira to show off to his peers.

But for the future, the Teixeira case means that the next data leak is likely. As Rid points out, there have been five mega-leaks in the US in the past 13 years – an average of about every 2.6 years. It is “pretty embarrassing” for American intelligence services that this keeps happening. Rid’s conclusion: “I expect that this was certainly not the last mega-leak.”