Surveillance in America
Over to the dark side
Jun 10th 2013, 6:15 by M.G.| SAN FRANCISCO
ONCE they have leaked secret information, most whistleblowers do their best to remain incognito. Not Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old tech specialist whose revelations about the extent of the snooping on all kinds of communications by America’s super-secretive National Security Agency (NSA) have rocked the country’s intelligence establishment and sparked calls for a public debate about where the line should be drawn between intelligence gathering and personal privacy in the digital era.
In a video interview published this weekend by the Guardian newspaper, Mr Snowden, who says he is now staying in Hong Kong, explains why he decided to leak details of PRISM, an NSA-run initiative that allows the agency to gather and store vast troves of online data from a range of internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
Justifying his decision to talk to the press, he argues that the American public has a right to know that the NSA has strayed from a narrow focus on foreign intelligence, and has been scooping up and storing huge amounts of information about Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism or other kinds of threats. He says his own concerns about this practice were ignored by the intelligence community, and so he chose to make some information about PRISM public in the hope it will prevent the development of what he calls a “turnkey tyranny”, run by a secretive and unaccountable intelligence bureaucracy.
America’s intelligence community is clearly none too pleased with Mr Snowden’s revelations. According to some reports, America’s Justice Department has already opened an investigation into the leaks and the chairs of the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress have said they expect the whistleblower to be prosecuted if possible. Parallels have already been drawn between Mr Snowden and Bradley Manning, the soldier currently on trial for allegedly passing classified documents to the WikiLeaks website.
Both Barack Obama and James Clapper, America’s director of national intelligence, have leapt to the defence of the PRISM system and another initiative involving the gathering of “metadata” about phone calls (which includes things such the calls’ duration and the phone numbers involved). They argue that such data-gathering is necessary to safeguard the nation, and that it is conducted within strict legal guidelines. But some lawmakers are asking whether the net has been cast too wide. Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat, has called for a review of the Patriot Act and the legal basis for broad surveillance programmes, such as PRISM.
The furore over PRISM also raises other significant issues. One is the extent to which private companies such as internet firms and phone companies should be expected to share data with the intelligence community—and how they do so. Both Larry Page, the boss of Google, and Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, have vehemently denied claims that their companies give American spooks “direct access” to data about customers. But they are clearly sharing information in more indirect ways.
Another issue likely to get plenty of attention is the role of private-sector firms in providing services to the intelligence community. Mr Snowden was an “infrastructure analyst” employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting company that handles many government projects. The firm, which says Mr Snowden had worked for it for less than three months as a contractor in Hawaii, put out a statement saying that if the reports that he leaked information are true, his actions would constitute a “grave violation” of the firm’s code of conduct and its core values.
The revelations about PRISM could also have implications for things such as trade talks between America and the European Union, where issues relating to data privacy have already cropped up. And they could even influence discussions between China and America, regarding cyber-security.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Mr Snowden is expecting reprisals for his leak. “I understand I will be made to suffer for my actions,” he says in the video. But he adds that his biggest fear for America is that, in spite of his disclosures about PRISM, nothing much will change.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)