Spare a thought for Edward Snowden. At the time of writing, the former Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency (NSA) technical contractor, was holed up in a transit lounge in a Moscow airport trying to figure out where in the world he could travel next to avoid arrest and prosecution by US authorities under the Espionage Act and other US laws.
Spare a thought for him, too, because, by inviting the wrath of the US government down on him, he’s done you and me a huge favour by lifting the lid on mass surveillance programmes that fly in the face of the civil rights that form a cornerstone of liberal democracy. One hopes the unfolding scandal will force the British and American governments to rein in their intelligence agencies and create clear definitions under law of what is and is not a fair target for spying.
Snowden, who turned 30 this week, released a series of top-secret American and British documents to The Guardian, telling the London-based newspaper that he “doesn’t want to live in a society” that engages in surveillance on its citizens. “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”
The Guardian published a series of articles, starting on 5 June, that revealed the US government had pressured giant telecommunications operator Verizon to provide daily “metadata” for telephone calls carried on its network domestically and internationally. A day later, the newspaper, together with The Washington Post, revealed the existence of an NSA programme called Prism, which taps into the servers of leading US Internet companies.
Further reports followed, alleging that the NSA had hacked into servers and communications infrastructure in China and Hong Kong over a four-year period, including systems owned by mobile phone operators, collecting millions of private text messages for analysis.
On 21 June, The Guardian published details, again from Snowden, which purported to show that British spy agency GCHQ is tapping directly into subsea fibre-optic cables — the ones that carry global Internet traffic and telephone calls — and is storing the records of people’s telephone calls, e-mails, Facebook posts and Internet histories and sharing this information with the NSA.
When al-Qaeda terrorists launched co-ordinated attacks on US landmarks 12 years ago — hijacking passenger aircraft and killing thousands of innocent people — the world, not only America, was shocked and justifiably outraged.
Most people supported measures to improve the safety of global air travel, even if it has meant greater inconvenience to them. Many also supported the US as it went to war in Iraq — despite the highly tenuous link to the 9/11 terror attacks and the fabrications about weapons of mass destruction — and in Afghanistan, where terror mastermind Osama bin Laden was thought to have been in hiding.
It was common cause that an increased level of court-sanctioned surveillance – including of electronic networks – would be needed to intercept communication between those intent on committing acts of terror on innocent civilians.
But the information leaked by Snowden — and he claims to have many more documents he hasn’t yet released to the media — shows a sophisticated plan by the British and American governments to implement an Orwellian system of mass surveillance that no one who holds the preservation of civil liberties dear can possibly support. These governments have firmly overstepped the mark. Any future criticism of China’s own shady online practices — which includes reports of incidents of hacking — will now ring hollow.
Of course, it’s difficult for the US, even if it has learnt a lesson from this incident — which is unlikely — for it to be seen to be going soft on Snowden. This would send the wrong message to others with access to classified information about the consequences of passing on secret documents. The last thing intelligence agencies can afford is to leak like a sieve. They depend on secrecy, and rightfully so.
But nothing can justify the mass interception and theft of personal information revealed through Snowden’s leaks. What’s happening is a violation of one of the basic tenets of liberal democracy. We can be very glad Snowden had the courage to sound the alarm.
- McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Engage with him on Twitter
- This column was first published in the Sunday Times