Ed­ward Snow­den un­der the mi­cro­scope

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS - David Free is an au­thor and critic.

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.”

Ed­ward Snow­den

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