Edward Snowden under the microscope
ON March 12 last year, James Clapper, Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, appeared before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Asked whether the National Security Agency collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans”, Clapper said: “No sir. Not wittingly.”
This answer was unsurprising. If Clapper had said yes, he would have been convicting his agency of activities that almost certainly violated the US constitution.
A 29-year-old NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was watching Clapper’s testimony with an especially keen eye. Snowden knew Clapper was lying; he knew the NSA had, in the decade since 9/11, vastly expanded its domestic data-gathering programs. Since December 2012, Snowden had been in touch with a columnist from The Guardian named Glenn Greenwald. As Clapper misled congress, Snowden was already stockpiling documents for the biggest intelligence spill since Bradley Manning’s WikiLeaks revelations.
The Snowden Files, written by another journalist with The Guardian, Luke Harding, reminds us Snowden’s story is still a work in progress. His leaks are still being published, and the man himself remains in Russia, in legal limbo. The drama remains tantalisingly incomplete. For the moment, Harding has written an absorbing on-the-fly history of its opening acts.
On June 5 last year, Snowden’s leaks began to appear in print. First came the revelation that the NSA was collecting the phone-call “metadata” of millions of customers of American telecom Verizon. The agency wasn’t recording the content of the conversations but it was storing information about number pairings, phone locations, and call timings and durations.
A day later it emerged the NSA was gathering internet data on an even larger scale. Under a program called Prism, the agency accessed data stored by its Silicon Valley “partners” — among them Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — to collect records of their customers’ online activities, including their search histories and the contents of their emails. A later leak revealed the agency had also hacked into Google’s and Yahoo’s data cables in Britain.
Unlike old-school wiretaps, the NSA’s datagathering programs didn’t discriminate. They collected everyone’s data by default, in apparent violation of the fourth amendment, which protects Americans against searches conducted without “probable cause” and a particularised warrant. The NSA, Snowden said, had hijacked the internet and turned it into a giant spying machine. “With this capacity,” he alleged, “the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting.”
Leaks about the NSA’s overseas operations followed, including some awkward revelations about American and Australian eavesdropping on friendly nations. In the meantime Snowden, who never intended to stay anonymous, had outed himself in a video interview posted on
The Guardian website. The interview took place in Hong Kong, where Snowden had fled in an effort to avoid extradition to the US. He subsequently flew to Russia, where the Putin regime granted him a one-year visa, due to expire on August 1 this year.
Who then is Snowden? The youngster we meet in the book’s early pages is an unpromising figure: a high school dropout and tech geek who posts forum messages under the username TheTrueHOOHA. His youthful politics are tiresome, but not in the way you may expect. Far from being a Julian Assange-style anarchist, Snowden has always leaned to the Right. In his windy youth he railed against socialism, restrictions on assault weapons, respectable wages for McDonald’s workers and the existence of a welfare safety-net.
Later on, working at the NSA, he was known for keeping a copy of the US constitution on his desk. In 2012 he contributed to the presidential campaign of the libertarian Ron Paul.
Snowden is a child of the internet age. Even after a three-month posting in Hawaii he looked vampire-pale, presumably having exposed himself to no illuminant except his computer screen. He was a devotee of online game Tekken, as Harding writes, “playing an everyman-warrior battling evil against the odds shaped his moral outlook, he later said”. When his Hong Kong lawyers raised the prospect of jail time, Snowden seemed unfazed until they told him he would have no access to a computer or the web. Then he panicked.
But when the pallid mariner was allowed to say his piece, he proved disturbingly eloquent on his special subject: privacy in the age of the web. “The internet is on principle a system that you reveal yourself to in order to fully enjoy,” he wrote to a journalist. “It is a TV that watches
you. The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the internet, and governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate.”
It worried Snowden that the government’s appetite for private data, and its capacity to archive it, were growing all the time. It worried him that he, as a mere contractor with a private firm, could easily go rogue and tap the wires of anyone, up to and including the President. It worried him that he knew these things and the public didn’t.
And what thinking person wouldn’t have been worried, in Snowden’s position? A troubling maxim emerges from this book. The more you know about computers, the more their power will tend to alarm you. Snowden knows an awful lot about them, and they terrify him. When a journalist turns up to interview him wielding a smartphone, Snowden flips out. The NSA, he explains, is capable of hacking the device and using it as a microphone or geolocator. He instructs his lawyers to shut their phones in a fridge. You would call this paranoia, if it weren’t for the fact Snowden knows exactly what he’s talking about.
Most of us are addicted to the net without understanding it. Snowden’s whistle-blast should snap us out of our sleepwalk. Now may be a good time to talk about our online privacy — now, while we still have some left.
Snowden has raised more difficult questions too. The gravest charge that has been made against him is the accusation, levelled by John Kerry and others, that he has put American lives at risk by tipping off terrorists to the NSA’s methods.
But the NSA’s methods imperil American life in another way, as Snowden has demonstrated. His leaks have shaken an assumption that has remained largely undisturbed since 9/11. Why should national security be allowed to trump individual privacy? Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe an open society, if it is to stay an open society, can never fully secure itself against violent attack. Maybe the preservation of privacy is worth some risk. In the immediate wake of 9/11 it was hard to discuss such questions soberly. Snowden has dramatically returned them to the table.
As a result, he may never see the US again. If he returns, he may receive the kind of prison sentence handed to Bradley Manning, who got 35 years. Snowden sacrificed himself to start an informed debate. The least we can do in return is to have it. We can also resist the idea that he is a traitor to his country. The best answer to that allegation has been provided, with typical acuity, by Snowden himself. “If I’m a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all my information to the American public ... If they [the government] see that as treason, I think people really need to consider who do they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.”