One year later: Four reasons Edward Snowden remains a polarizing figure

Edward Snowden remains a polarizing figure in the U.S. on the one-year anniversary of the first published story based on his leaks about the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance practices.

Many people, especially younger Americans, see the former NSA contractor as a patriot for having the guts to expose what they perceive as illegal surveillance practices by the world's most powerful spy agency. Others, especially those within government and older Americans, see him as a traitor in exile whose revelations have done more to damage U.S. interests than anyone in recent memory.

Here are four reasons that may help explain the remarkable dichotomy.

A big focus on the NSA's domestic spying

The Snowden leaks that have garnered the most attention and stirred the most concern are those describing domestic NSA surveillance programs like Prism and the spy agency's bulk phone metadata collection effort. News of these programs have stoked considerable concern in the U.S. about the NSA engaging in dragnet domestic surveillance under the aegis of counterterrorism efforts that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The fact that these programs were being conducted in almost total secrecy and under questionable legal justification prior to the leaks only served to accentuate those concerns -- and made Snowden a hero for exposing them. Many of those who support him argue that the leaks have forced the government to acknowledge the existence of the programs and take steps to make them more transparent and accountable.

In a recent poll of 1,007 employed adults conducted by cloud security firm Tresorit, 55% felt that Snowden was right in revealing details about Prism, a program under which the NSA purportedly collects customer data from major U.S. Internet companies.

"On the one hand, [Snowden] told us something we always knew: Spies spy," said Steve Hunt principal analyst at Security Current. "Spying on specific national interests is assumed, expected, and probably universal. However, spying on a populous is extreme. Regular citizens don't qualify for surveillance unless they are associated in some other way with a security threat."

The impact on U.S. intelligence gathering has been downplayed

The vast majority of the documents released by Snowden have little to do with domestic spying. Instead they pertain to activities that many believe all spy agencies engage in as part of their missions. Among the documents released are those that describe how the NSA collects information on intelligence targets in other countries, who it targets, the agencies it partners with and other details.

By releasing information on adversaries and rivals, Snowden has seriously set back U.S. intelligence capabilities, says Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA. "There is an absolutely genuine loss of American [intelligence] capability that has been identified by executive branch officials and legislative branch officials," Hayden said. "They have been specific to the point of saying we are aware of specific channels of information that [are] no longer available to us as a result of Snowden."

Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (to whom Snowden has been compared) revealed deliberative policy documents, Hayden noted. "Snowden is leaking stuff about how America collects secrets. Therefore it is infinitely more damaging" than the Pentagon Papers release in 1971, he said.

Many of those following the Snowden story fail to understand the full implications of the leaks and simply see them as part of a broader narrative about executive branch and government overreach, Hayden said. "This story is really part of a perfect storm in American politics."

How Snowden released the data matters

Some are less angry with Snowden for the information he released but for the manner in which he released it. The argument is that if he had been a true whistleblower, Snowden would have pursued whatever legal avenues were available to him rather than going to the media with the information. Rather than indiscriminately making everything he had downloaded available, Snowden should have made sure that he focused only on documents that highlighted what he considered to be unconstitutional spying by the NSA.

Snowden's flight to Russia and the fact that he was granted political asylum there exacerbated these concerns among those who feel he should return to the U.S. to face the charges against him.

"Snowden took actions that were illegal," says Michael Brown a retired real admiral with the U.S. Navy and general manager of RSA's federal business group. "If he had concerns, he had many other ways to voice those concerns" instead of going to the media.

By choosing that option, Snowden compromised national security and intelligence capabilities, Brown noted.

Blowback on the technology industry

While Snowden's revelations about Prism and NSA metadata collection and similar programs have been a windfall for civil liberties groups, they have proved damaging to the U.S. technology industry. The leaks have painted an unclear picture of the role U.S. tech firms have played in the NSA's data collection -- both domestically and abroad.

One the one hand, the leaked documents suggest that the NSA worked with several companies in its data collection efforts. Others show that the NSA may have worked actively with IT vendors to weaken encryption tools and build backdoors in technology products. At the same time, the documents leave many questions unanswered about the exact nature of these apparent partnerships. The incomplete information raised serious trust issues for U.S. technology vendors and forced them on the defensive.

Companies like Cisco and IBM have already reported lower revenues in some parts of the world because of concerns prompted by the Snowden revelations. And there are some concerns that U.S. cloud service providers could lose tens of billions of dollars in overseas revenues as the result of the Snowden leaks.

The situation has given technology firms in Europe and elsewhere an opportunity to try and grab market share from U.S. companies, says Howard Schmidt, a former White House cybersecurity czar and executive director of the Software Assurance Forum for Excellence in Code. Companies that have been struggling to compete with U.S vendors have suddenly begun playing up the trust issue in a bid to snatch away customers, he said.

While some have argued that blaming Snowden is akin to blaming the messenger for bad news, the continuing woes faced by technology companies further reinforce the idea among Snowden detractors that the leaks have, on balance, been harmful.

And as the episode moves into its second year, there remains a troubling fact: No one knows what other secrets have yet to spill out.

Tags securityU.S. National Security Agency

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