Snowden's legacy for the digital age

Love him or hate him, the internet is unlikely to forget Edward Snowden in a hurry and his revelations should give us a reason to pause and ponder the implications of living in the digital world.

Whistleblower, concerned citizen, traitor – Edward Snowden fits all of those descriptions, it just depends on your perspective. 

Love him or hate him, the internet is unlikely to forget him anytime soon; and his revelations should give us, the denizens of the internet, a reason to pause and perhaps reconsider the implications of living in the digital world.

Snowden first leaked National Security Agency documents in June 2013 and along the way has managed to cause headaches for intelligence agencies across the globe, embarrass national leaders and send technology heavyweights into damage control.

Putting Snowden’s motivations and judgement to one side, he has at least managed to shed light on the inherent deficiencies and complications of living in today’s connected world. From security agencies spying on their neighbours and citizens, to ‘leaky’ apps harvesting customer data, none of it should come as a surprise to those well-versed in realpolitik.

Ideals are just as annoying in the virtual world as they are in the real world. But Snowden’s initiative exposes the somewhat naïve lack of oversight from those who should know better.

Case in point, the New York Timesbig reveal of just how easily Snowden pilfered the information from the clutches of the NSA. According to their report, Snowden used bargain basement ‘web crawler’ software, designed to index and back up sites, to scrape the data from various systems.

We aren’t talking about a sophisticated intrusion. This is relatively inexpensive software utilised to seek out particular subjects and find out just how much information was on them within NSA’s internal networks. A similar method was used by Wikileaks to get its hands on sensitive data and it would seem the NSA learnt little from that experience.

The report is another illustration of why, when it comes to protecting data, it’s the little things that matter. If the so-called guardians of the free world are failing to close the gaps, maybe it’s a bit rich to think that businesses can do any better.

Angry at Angry Birds

Meanwhile, the Snowden leaks have also had some unfortunate side effects for companies that perhaps weren’t foremost in public consciousness when it comes to data security.  

Last month Angry Birds, the mobile game that has brought joy to so many, suddenly became a poster child of everything that’s wrong with the internet. The maker of the game, Finland’s Rovio, found itself in a tight spot after revelations that security agencies were using Angry Birds and other so-called ‘leaky apps’ to harvest data.

Angry Birds just had the misfortune of being singled out courtesy of its rampant popularity but the fact is that those bits of software that we now take for granted have a dark side, holding subtle perils hidden from our sight.

These perils emanate from the fundamental business model of the internet. The so-called 'free' mobile applications come at a cost and carry the potential to compromise sensitive data.

But App developers need advertisers and advertisers need data. That’s the engine of monetisation and the more data that’s harvested, the greater the incentive for an advertiser to hook up with a developer.

As for us consumers, antivirus services provider Bitdefender’s senior E-threat analyst Bogdan Botezatu says that most of us don’t know what’s under the hood of the apps we love to populate our devices with.

According to Botezatu, given how many apps are integrated into our daily lives, they provide a clear window into our behaviour.

“Most of us are used to on-screen permission messages when downloading or using an app, but we don’t consider what the implications are of what we are saying yes to,” says Botezatu.

“If app vendors made this a matter of public information, you wouldn’t be downloading a lot of the apps we take for granted.”

So while advertisers are scraping data to provide services, the NSA is scraping it to weed out threats and hackers are spanning the globe looking for low-hanging fruit. Meanwhile, we hope that those entrusted with our data will keep it safe.

The politics around Snowden will undoubtedly fade over time but his endeavour has provided an insight into a world where all data is commoditised.

Whether we are ready for that world is a bigger, unanswered question.