Post-Snowden, the US Reaps a Security Whirlwind
It's the one year anniversary of what is now known as the Snowden revelations, which appeared on June 5 and June 9 when The Guardian broke news of classified National Security Agency documents and Edward Snowden revealed himself in Hong Kong as the source of those leaks.
There is still much to decipher from the chronology of events in the aftermath and the sudden global awakening to the end of privacy. Among the impacts on the personal, business and political fronts, one interesting salient feature is the hypocritical rhetorical spats between the US and China in recent weeks, which could set the undertone for US-Sino relations for years to come.
Snowden said his biggest fear is that nothing would change following his bold decision a year ago.
Granted, one depressing constant is the practice of state snooping and it has probably worsened globally. Take the revelations last week about how intelligence agencies from some 29 countries have regularly requested data from British telecommunications company Vodafone for law enforcement and national security purposes. Some countries even had direct access to Vodafone’s networks without any legal warrants.
Vodafone, the second largest global carrier behind China Mobile has declined to name those countries with direct access – which includes the ability to listen in on phone calls and read text messages. However, Vodafone listed a country-by-country law enforcement disclosure section detailing “the legal powers available to agencies and authorities in each of our countries of operation” with “statistical information about the number of demands received.” Coincidentally there are 29 countries in the list.
Perhaps bad habits are hard to kick for spies but the world will never be really quite the same after the Snowden revelations.
The heightened public awareness and fear of the extent of government surveillance practices have led some US lawmakers to push for greater transparency and legal frameworks for surveillance constraints. But don't place your bets on any seismic change as the permanency of any gains remains in doubts. After all, as the Bible has it, spying is as old an institution as prostitution in the history of mankind.
But other changes are more pronounced.
On the business front, the damage to the US social media and technology industries has been well documented. And it goes beyond dollars and cents. Just consider the irreversible impact of the recent landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling against Google in the European Union.
Google chief executive Larry Page has warned how the ruling could damage the next generation of internet start-ups and strengthen the hand of repressive governments. Erasing the past is also an irreparable mistake with catastrophic consequences in many ways, including limits on the fact-checking ability of law enforcement, legal institutions and the commercial world. It's erasing history and a godsend for criminals.
On the political sphere, the relationship between the US and its allies has turned from lukewarm at best to frosty, especially with China. Prior to the Snowden revelations, the US had enjoyed taking the media for a spin on the threats of Chinese cyber espionage activities.
Fast forward, the recent tirade of cyber espionage accusations between US and China have continued to grab global headlines, including the names and photos of five Chinese military officials the US charged as hackers and Chinese retaliation of “unscrupulous” American espionage.
The Chinese understand economic sanctions could be on the US cards – consider what's happening to Russia – and Beijing has been busy lately sending friendly reminders: forget sanctions or you will regret it.
If that hasn’t been obvious, China's state media lashed out at US tech firms on June 4 and called on Beijing “to punish severely the pawns” of the US government for monitoring China and stealing its secrets.
Chinese state-run China Central Television also ran a broadcast on June 4 to warn that Microsoft's Windows 8 poses a national security threat – shortly after another announcement in late May that banned Windows 8 from all government computers. China also warned its domestic banks in late May to remove all IBM servers on fears of potential threats to the nation's financial security.
Chinese state-owned companies were told in late May to cut ties with US consulting firms like McKinsey and Boston Consulting on fears that they are spying on behalf of the US government.
All these coincidentally and aggressively after the Americans made poster boys of the five Chinese military officials? It's simply China's way of saying enough is enough.
Snowden should have no worries about having no impact. Neither should China.
Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: http://vansonsoo.com