The Most Influential Of 2014: Edward Snowden

Each year, as part of the Top 100, CRN selects one individual whose actions have had the biggest impact on the channel and the technology industry at large, most often as a positive force of change. That individual usually is hard at work within the channel ecosystem—a vendor executive, a solution provider, a technology innovator.

But this year no one person has rattled the worldwide technology market, its vendors, vendors' partners, and business owners large and small more than Edward Snowden. The controversial former government contractor at the National Security Agency ignited a firestorm last summer with a steady stream of leaked NSA documents, ensnaring major U.S. technology providers along the way as part of a global surveillance dragnet.

Some consider Snowden a whistleblower for exposing the government's overreach; others think he is a traitor for leaking classified information integral to the nation's intelligence gathering capabilities. Regardless of in which camp one falls, the documents Snowden leaked have forced Congress to rein in the government's surveillance activities, prompted business owners to consider stronger measures for data protection and control, and revealed the amount of contextual data employees and consumers are leaking to service providers.

There is a fear that Snowden has eroded the trust that business owners place in the long-term viability of the Internet and has shaken the faith in the data protection practices of cloud service providers that they increasingly depend on, said Andrew Sherman, security practice lead at Eden Technologies, a New York-based security consultancy and solution provider. The level of anxiety over data access has increased significantly since the first leak, Sherman said.

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"Corporate users here are starting to care much more than ever before about the privacy of their data as it goes across cloud provider infrastructure," Sherman said. "There is clearly a lot more pressure on cloud application and infrastructure service providers to tighten up how they transmit data over the network and around the world."

The cloud computing industry could lose billions over the next three years, but the impact could be far broader, according to a report issued in July by public policy think tank The New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute that attempted to quantify the potential losses. The report found the NSA disclosures put a variety of U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage, including being excluded from proposal requests. New data privacy rules and other restrictions could slow the growth of the U.S. technology services industry by as much as 4 percent, the report found.

"Our findings indicate that the actions of the National Security Agency have already begun and will continue to cause significant damage to the interests of the United States and the global Internet community," said Danielle Kehl, a policy analyst at the Open Technology Institute and the primary author of the report. "American companies have reported declining sales overseas and lost business, especially as foreign companies turn protection from NSA spying into a competitive advantage."

The leaked documents also revealed an NSA program that spends $250 million a year to allegedly develop relationships with companies in order to weaken standards or provide back doors into products.

Cloud service providers, security vendors and MSPs are more aware that they can no longer exploit the data they collect on their customers, said Hugh Njemaze, co-founder and former CTO of ArcSight, who left Hewlett-Packard in 2012 to work as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. Technology providers are responding to the NSA revelations by providing more transparency to re-establish trust, Njemaze said.

"More and more companies all the way down to startups are realizing that one of biggest assets they can generate is from collecting, reporting, tracking and potentially selling metadata about people they have in their systems," Njemaze said. "[Since] Snowden happened there's been much more of an awareness for the need to have policies in place to address what consumer and business owner expectations are about what is being done with the data."

NEXT: The Long-Term Impact On U.S. Technology Growth

The full impact of the Snowden leaks are still being measured, said Dean Drako, president and CEO of cloud-based video surveillance management platform Eagle Eye Networks. The documents may have helped educate business owners on data protection in the short term, but could have significant longer-term implications on business growth for U.S. technology firms operating in certain countries, Drako said. Large infrastructure vendors already are bracing for negative fallout that complicates international growth in some regions, said Drako, also the founder and former CEO of network security and storage vendor Barracuda Networks.

"The security infiltration, the monitoring, tapping and snooping activities that have been uncovered have made some people's hair stand up on the back of their neck," Drako said. "There's a much greater awareness of the fact that there's a lot more snooping done than people realized."

Business owners want to be reassured that they can maintain control of the data they store in cloud services, say solution providers. The NSA revelations created more opportunity to have a discussion about security and data protection with clients, said Kevin Wheeler, founder and managing director at InfoDefense, a Dallas-based information security services firm. Clients are learning more about properly implemented encryption, data loss prevention, and network monitoring to defend against external cyberattacks and the risks posed by insiders, Wheeler said.

"The technology companies implicated in the Snowden disclosures are really being drowned out by the privacy issues and data access concerns that his actions exposed," Wheeler said. "I see more opportunities out of the Snowden discussion, but also a lot of interest in security generally being driven by the threat landscape."

The Snowden documents also revealed a government initiative to stockpile vulnerabilities in a variety of software rather than disclosing security flaws to software vendors for patching. Snowden helped raise the discussion about whether as a society the government should have had the authority it claimed to have been given following 9/11, said Nick Giampietro, director of sales at G-Net Solutions. It increased attention on the fallibility of software and infrastructure weaknesses that can be taken advantage of by any person with an interest in eavesdropping. "If the government can find a way in, criminals will get in too," Giampietro said. "Business owners want to prevent their sensitive information from falling into the hands of competitors and criminal organizations, and that's what is driving interest in security."