Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of modern life. He found himself in the headlines again this week as the US Justice Department filed suit against him for what they are considering breaches of the contracts he signed while working for the CIA and NSA.
Snowden is a controversial figure because his case involves many of the unresolved and unpleasant issues that are currently at play in the evolving relationship between states and their citizens. The ongoing process of digitization has resulted in the opening up of new areas of undefined status in terms of governmental jurisdiction and individual rights. This is so because activity on the internet is not constricted by the same laws of time and space as normal activity. People can share information and exchange value with each other across the farthest reaches of the earth in real-time. While this has fundamentally changed the way people do business and the way we communicate with each other, despite what some of Silicon Valley’s self aggrandizers may have you believe, modern technology is not the balm of anointing, and it has not prompted us to evolve out of the human ills that have plagued us throughout history.
No, on the contrary, bad behavior is not only surviving the transition to digital, it is thriving. As it turns out, the convenience of the breakneck speed of online life and online business has been accompanied by a pervasive vulnerability that perhaps is paralleled by the offline anxieties that seem to be an inextricable feature of modern life. This vulnerability is felt acutely in the crypto community, where the rapid growth of the industry is only rivalled by losses it suffers from hacks and security breaches (we’re at $4 billion so far this year).
The question becomes, once we have digital stores of value and digital transgressors, what can be done to prevent attacks from happening and to protect what needs protecting. There are two main ways of doing this. The centralized way, and the decentralized way.
The centralized way of securing the digital space requires compliance with a centralized authority. This is essentially the system in place today. Systems of government that have authority over their citizens and territory extend their authority into the digital space in order to deter bad actors and maintain the well being of their citizens.
This is where Edward Snowden comes in. Snowden became a household name in 2013 after he disclosed a number of national security secrets vouchsafed from his time working for the CIA and NSA. Unbeknownst to Americans and other targets around the world, the US government was engaged in thorough data harvesting and tracking procedures in which it collected sensitive material on countless individuals.
Among the programs in place were PRISM, in which the NSA could access user data from Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and a number of other tech companies; a spying operation that targeted over a hundred world leaders, including Angela Merkel; XKeyscore, a secret tool that enabled the NSA to see almost everything users do on the internet; wide reading text message and phone call harvesting and recording operations; a hacker team called “Tailored Access Operations” which the NSA employs to infect targets with malware when other methods of data collection fail and operations that had breached the Google and Yahoo data centers.
Part 2 of this story will be published tomorrow at 12:30.