The impact of Ed Snowden’s bombshell disclosures

by Chris Zappone

I’m not sure what impact Snowden’s leaks/whistleblowing will have on reforming US domestic surveillance. However, the Snowden leaks have revealed US intelligence operations in Hong Kong, Germany, UK and Brazil. These bombshells will continue to be drip-fed to the global public, creating a sort of touchtone of irritation between the US and many other countries.  The information will highlight the perceived hegemony of the US in the new online sphere, irritating activists, governments and opposition governments.

At the same time, back home in the US, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has struggled to spark a national debate about a surveillance state. At last count, a petition demanding that Congress take the NSA to task for the lack of oversight on these programs garnered only 500,000 signatures – and it’s not clear how many of those were American. That’s 500,000 out of a nation of 310 million. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has also apologized for lying to Congress. 

But at this point, the bigger impact so far is clearly to US relations abroad. Already there have been calls in China to ditch US-based Cisco as a provider of internet infrastructure. These threats to the overseas business of Cisco come after the US barred Federal agencies from using Huawei infrastructure and routers, in the months before Snowden began leaking to the media. Australia has done the same thing.

But why? The implication at the time was that Huawei would build spyware into the equipment that could be used against foreign governments. However, a better, more nuanced explanation can be found in the book, The New Digital Age:

In the future, superpower supplier nations will look to create their spheres of online influence around specific protocols and products, so that their technologies form the backbone of a particular society and their client states come to rely on certain critical infrastructure that the superpower alone builds, services and controls.

If Huawei is the provider of underlying internet backbone technology in a given country, Huawei will have more influence over what kind of products flourish there.

The book goes on:

There are currently four main manufacturers of telecommunications equipment: Sweden’s Ericsson, China’s Huawei, France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco in the United States. China would certainly benefit from large portions of the world using its hardware and software, because the Chinese government has dominating influences over what its companies do.

In a political crisis, this has great implications, with a Chinese company having few qualms about aiding a local government in suppressing the communications and organization of a rebel movement, for example.

The irony of course, is that without further reform in the US, American companies have dominating influence over what the US government does. In fact, The New Digital Age is essentially written by Google (the chief executive Eric Schmidt and ex-State Department guy, now Google Ideas head, Jared Cohen.) But as has been noted elsewhere, we are at a stage where the nature of the technology has the US government following the lead of private industry (VF).

The passage continues: “Where Huawei gains market share, the influence and reach of China grow as well.”

Employing some Googlesque wording, the book notes:

Technology companies export their values along with their products, so it is absolutely vital who lays the foundation of connectivity infrastructure…If, for example, a Chinese client state uses its purchased technology to persecute internal minority groups, the United States would have very limited leverage: Legal recourse would be useless. This is a commercial battle with profound security implications.

The New Digital Age gives the example of China building cyber influence in Africa.

China has been remarkably successful in extending its footprint into Africa, trading technical assistance and large infrastructure projects for access to resources and consumer markets, in no small part due to China’s non-interference policy and low bids. Who, then, will those countries likely turn to when they decide start building their cyber arsenal?

In fact, the books points to an ongoing, low-grade cyber war emerging between states, with countries grouped together by both their political allegiances and the source of their technology, which sometimes clash but often go hand-in-hand.

In the wake of Ed Snowden’s leaks to media, which The Guardian can, at their leisure, distribute to the world, there will be more impetus than ever for countries outside the US to build and search out alternatives to US dominated internet infrastructure.

If anything, global backlash from Snowden’s disclosures may accelerate the demand for more US-free alternatives in internet infrastructure, applications and even social media. But for the countries that continue to rely on US services and technology, there will be the tacit acceptance of the US sphere of technological influence.

In time, we will see if this is another sign of the balkanization of the internet and the eventual balkanization of internet technology.