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

Opinions about him are sharply divided one year after he began leaking details about the NSA's spying activities

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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.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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