Ten years of NSA leaks: How Snowden’s revelations still work today


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Status: 05.06.2023 23:06

Ten years ago Edward Snowden revealed the gigantic spying programs of the US secret service NSA and its allies. The ex-intelligence agent fled to Russia. What did his revelations do?

From time to time there is still applause for Edward Snowden in the USA, for example in June 2022 at a conference on cryptocurrencies organized by the CoinDesk website. Snowden was connected via video from Moscow. When asked what he did, Snowden said:

“Before 2013, there were experts, scientists, who understood that this mass surveillance is possible, that it’s likely to happen. But it was just a guess. In 2013, that became a certainty that the world had changed, that it was real. “

Barack Obama is back in Berlin. He already met ex-Chancellor Merkel yesterday.

Hero or Traitor?

Looking back, is Snowden a hero or a traitor? Both terms go too far, says Erik Dahl, a former intelligence officer himself and now a professor at the US Navy College in Monterrey, California:

“He certainly didn’t act like that to work alongside the enemies of the United States, so to speak. Although today it hardly benefits him that he became a Russian citizen,” says Dahl. “On the other hand, he broke the law, committed treason.”

In Dahl’s opinion, Snowden can only become a kind of hero if he returns to the USA and faces the consequences of his actions here: “Then he would be a real hero from my point of view.”

A 21-year-old military employee is said to be responsible for the spectacular leak of US secret documents.

What the secret services care about

The German political scientist Thomas Rid, who teaches at the renowned Johns Hopkins University, analyzed and cataloged all of the nearly 2,700 Snowden files. They correspond to around 4500 pages of documents. From Rid’s point of view, the United States’ counter-espionage capabilities are particularly impressive.

The NSA has developed “sophisticated methods” to discover hostile services on networks that it itself has penetrated. If she broke into a computer network, she first wanted to know who had broken into the network next to her. And if you discover someone, ask yourself whether this intruder is also being tapped – in order “not only to learn something about his target, but also about what interests them so much”.

Rid considers the so-called Five Eyes, the network of secret services from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain, to be unique in a global comparison: “This community, this ‘intelligence community’ across five countries, is extremely creative. I think it is It is extremely difficult for other services – Germany, but also opposing services such as the Chinese – to be as agile and innovative as the Five Eyes exemplify.”

What works and what doesn’t among partners?

The Snowden leaks also revealed that the NSA had also tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. How reliable is the USA as a partner from a German perspective?

The fact that allies occasionally spy on each other is a fact, says intelligence expert Rid. On the other hand, one must also take into account that intelligence services also share their findings with one another and refer to processes that are worth further research. The federal government actually found out about the British through the 2015 Bundestag hack.

In the end, everyone who uses the Internet or services like WhatsApp or Signal would have benefited from the knowledge gained from the Snowden leaks, says Rid, for example through newly developed encryption technologies: “Even if you think Snowden is a traitor or if you think that he did the wrong thing, it still has to be recognized that internet safety in general has improved as a result of these revelations.”

The next leak – only a matter of time

What the 21-year-old US soldier Jack Teixeira recently published on a gaming platform is very different from Snowden, stresses Rid. In the most recent case, it’s not about technical files, but about texts, reports from intelligence services, for example about details of the war against Ukraine – Teixeira apparently posted it online to show off to friends of the same age.

But for the future, the Teixeira case means that the next data leak will definitely come. Rid calculates that there have been five mega leaks in the USA in the past 13 years – on average every 2.6 years. It is “rather embarrassing” for the American intelligence services that something like this happens again and again. Rid’s conclusion: “I reckon that it wasn’t the last mega leak, of course.”

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