As the intrigue surrounding Edward Snowden’s whereabouts and his travels around the world continue unabated, the furore over his leaking of classified US programmes to spy on users of the internet continues to grow. An ex-CIA contractor with access to vast amounts of top secret information at the US National Security Agency, Snowden’s disclosures are creating waves around the world, raising memories of the Cold War and leading to serious pressure on bilateral relations between the US on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. The disclosures also add further pressure on the US government in the wake of the Wikileaks scandal which has revealed the duplicity at the heart of many of America’s relationships with other governments.
Initial disclosures, while concerning, seemed to reflect the overzealous nature of the US National Security Agency rather than a global internet spying programme. On 5 June 2013, The Guardian newspaper released details of a secret order from the US government to Verizon Communications, one of the largest US-based telecom corporations, requiring it to disclose so-called ‘metadata’ on an ongoing daily basis to Federal authorities. Metadata refers to logs of all telephone calls and electronic communications sent across the internet and telephone networks, including telephone numbers and email addresses, sender and receiver locations, lengths of phone calls and emails, and other identifying data.
Criticism quickly flowed forcing the US government to announce that the collection of the data was regulated by law, being required to support the fight against terrorists and criminals worldwide. The next day, however, The Guardian and the Washington Post revealed that US authorities had also gained direct access to the servers of many of the largest internet companies in the world in a secret project codenamed PRISM, harvesting emails, search terms and other usage information in real-time from companies including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, Google, AOL, Skype, Youtube and Apple.
The existence of a specialised global surveillance programme codenamed Boundless Informant was revealed on 9 June, showing that the US government had secretly hacked into global telecommunications networks accessing and mapping global communications in real-time. The US government argued that they were only accessing communications emanating outside America, a claim that has been criticised as “unlikely” and “technically impossible” by internet freedom campaigners, due to the globalised nature of the internet.
The very next day, The Guardian revealed the source of the leaks, placing a picture of Edward Snowden on the front page of the newspaper. In an interview with the paper, Snowden defended his choice to leak the information arguing that the surveillance were immoral, based on American fear-mongering, and that the world should know the extent of US spying. The newspaper also revealed that Snowden had fled to Hong Kong due to fears of being persecuted by US authorities who had already labelled him a traitor.
The hunt for Snowden began in earnest almost immediately. On 11 June, Snowden checked out from the Mira hotel in Hong Kong, going underground in an apparent attempt to evade US attempts at catching him.
The disclosures didn’t stop. To the embarrassment of British authorities just before the opening of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this month, the newspaper revealed that British secret services had tapped the phones and internet usage of diplomats at the previous G20 summit held in London in 2009, bringing stinging rebukes from diplomats who had attended.
US Federal authorities then issued an indictment against Edward Snowden, beginning the legal process requesting his extradition back to the US. Whilst in hiding, Snowden gave an online interview on 17 June saying that the American government had consistently spread a “litany of lies” to the people of the world, and that “the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the ‘consent of the governed’ is meaningless,”
The story then quickly snowballed from the leaking of classified information to a global manhunt. Allegations of conspiracy came first from China that the US had also tapped its telephone networks, then from various commentators in the US alleging that Snowden may have been serving as a spy for China, a claim denied by Chinese authorities.
In perhaps one of the most damaging leaks to date, on 21 June The Guardian reported that the British secret services had tapped major global data lines under the Atlantic ocean surfacing in the UK, providing them with direct access to vast quantities of all the data communicated across the internet. The project, chillingly branded ‘Mastering the Internet’ by GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, showed that notions of privacy in personal communications had been fundamentally undermined. Despite the Foreign Secretary of Britain being forced to defend the programme in an urgent statement to the British Parliament, human rights campaigners and governments have slammed the tapping project as an attack on democracy and the freedom of the internet. The German government has today demanded to know whether the British government has targeted any of its citizens.
Snowden was allowed to board a flight from Hong Kong to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on 23 June, much to fury of the Americans. John Kerry, Secretary of State of the US and in Delhi at the time, quickly warned China of unspecified “consequences” for allowing Snowden to escape, although Hong Kong authorities claim that the US request to extradite him was incomplete.
At the time of writing, Snowden is currently still in Moscow airport in possession of Ecuadorian refugee papers after failing to board a flight from Moscow to Havana on 24 June. Julian Assange, the architect of the Wikileaks website and himself holed up in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, has confirmed that his legal advisers are assisting Snowden to reach Ecuador, calling him a “hero”.
The US has urged Russia to extradite Snowden before he leaves Sheremetyevo airport, to ensure that bilateral relations are not damaged. The Russian President Vladimir Putin, clearly angry at the content of the disclosures as well as veiled American threats, has been reported as saying that Snowden had technically “not entered Russian territory” and, being without a Russian visa and not having committed any crimes in Russia, was free to leave.
It seems clear that the story will run for some time. Reports in the Russian press suggest that the US may ground any flights entering its airspace on which it suspects Snowden may be, and Snowden himself has promised that further information has already been passed to third parties and is likely to be released. The next few days will undoubtedly bring further twists and turns as this story continues to develop. Perhaps the one thing that has become clear so far is that the internet, possibly the single biggest contributor to human development in recent years, is no longer free.
Steven Allen is a freelance writer, from London, UK, currently living in West Bengal, India. He delivers training on conflict transformation and has been a social justice campaigner for many years, campaigning on issues such as the human rights of Palestinians and people with disabilities