Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, appeared at TED2014 via telepresence. His video, embedded below, must be watched. You may think he’s a hero or you may think he’s a villain, but he’s unequivocally right about one thing: We must protect the integrity of the Internet and online communications or we risk disrupting the world economy and all of our lives.
Most people feel that the Snowden saga is all about the NSA and the government, and there is some truth to that. Snowden released information about the NSA’s capabilities and revealed just how little oversight there is of the agency within the United States government. But some people just aren’t worried about that. They trust the government and believe that the NSA is acting in the national interest.
“The public interest is not the same as the national interest” – Edward Snowden
But what about our own individual needs? Most Americans, and many people all over the world, rely on the Internet for their daily lives. We do our banking from computers and phones, we shop online from Amazon to our favorite specialty retailers. And we communicate with family and friends through Facebook, email, and so many other social sites. Like Snowden said to Tim Berners-Lee in this TED talk, we all live in the Internet.
Yet the NSA’s “Bullrun” project sought to weaken the very protocols that secure Internet commerce. This revelation is huge, not because it gives a shadowy American agency access to private communications but because it threatens every legitimate thing we use the Internet for. And by extension, it threatens the entire Internet economy, from web services to hardware and software companies to individuals going about their daily lives.
“They tell corporate partners that these are safe standards … but in reality they are giving bad advice to these companies that makes them degrade the security of their services. They’re building in back doors that not only the NSA can exploit, but anyone else who has time and money to research and find it can then use to let themselves in to the world’s communications. This is really dangerous because if we lose a single standard, if we lose the trust of something like SSL which was specifically targeted by the Bullrun program, we will live in a less-safe world overall. We won’t be able to access our banks, and we won’t be able to access commerce.” – Edward Snowden
This is not hyperbole. If a weakness or hole is found in SSL or TLS (the standards that keep web transactions secure), no company, in good conscience, could continue to use the Internet for business. Say goodbye to “one-click shopping” on Amazon, to easy stock transactions at E-Trade, and even to eBay! None of those companies could continue allowing simple Internet transactions to proceed without another form of verification.
Everyone is touched by secure Internet transactions today, and if all that fell apart the entire world economy would crash. This would be a global shock, sending the economy into a massive depression and causing ripples that would affect even non-connected people. All because the NSA wanted to be able to peer inside SSL.
Watch the video. Think for yourself. As for me, I’m not sure if Snowden was more heroic than reckless, but if I had to pick one I’d have to support him. Especially after hearing him speak. We need Edward Snowden sounding the alarm, and we need to listen.