Monday, June 24, 2013

Few places to hide as Snowden flees HK

There was wild speculation as to where Edward Snowden might be headed after he unexpectedly left Hong Kong on Sunday [23rd June] where he had been hiding since May.


Snowden, seen by the US as a traitor, and even a spy potentially working for a foreign power, boarded a flight bound for Russia within hours of the US having sought his arrest and filed extradition papers with the Hong Kong authorities [BBC / As it happened: BBC].

On Saturday, the White House had contacted Hong Kong to try to arrange Snowden's extradition, but the territory's administration said the documents submitted by Washington did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law" and requested further information from the US government.

Snowden boarded a flight for Moscow and was due to land on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, Hong Kong authorities were swift to defend their letting Snowden flee. "Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today [23rd June] on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel," the Hong Kong government said in a statement.


His leaving removes a major diplomatic headache for the Hong Kong leadership and China, who were faced with the prospect of a prolonged legal battle. Whether persuaded or encouraged to leave [NYT], it is face-saving for China, who were already seen as being a little too close to Snowden, leading to suspicions that he may have been working as a spy.

Last Sunday former US vice president Dick Cheney told Fox News that Snowden was a "traitor" and questioned his decision to travel to Hong Kong [Guardian].

"I'm suspicious because he went to China. That's not a place where you would ordinarily want to go if you are interested in freedom, liberty and so forth," Cheney said, adding: "It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this."

Quite where the 'traitor' was headed next was not entirely clear. He was clearly proving to be an uncomfortable guest for Hong Kong, so who would accept this US "enemy of the state"?

Uncertain destination

There was speculation he might fly to Cuba, Ecuador or even Venezuela. The former National Security Agency contractor and CIA technician arrived in Moscow late Sunday, where he was expected to spend the night before boarding an Aeroflot flight to Cuba. Meanwhile Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino said his government had received an asylum request from Snowden, and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said it would help him [Belfast Telegraph / Guardian].

In a statement on Sunday night, WikiLeaks, which has been providing legal and logistical help to Snowden in recent days, said, "He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks."

"Mr Snowden requested that WikiLeaks use its legal expertise and experience to secure his safety. Once Mr Snowden arrives in Ecuador his request will be formally processed."


The papers leaked by Snowden have angered not only the US authorities and its citizens, but also governments and citizens in several other countries.

China's foreign ministry has dismissed speculation that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden might have spied for Beijing as "completely groundless" [Guardian]. Furthermore they have been angered by reports that the US hacked several institutions in China [Guardian].

In an article published in the South China Morning Post, there were claims that Tsinghua University in Beijing, widely regarded as the mainland's top education and research institute, was the target of extensive hacking by US spies.

The university is home to one of the mainland's six major backbone networks, the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) from where Internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined, the paper said.

Other reports suggested that the NSA acting under the umbrella of PRISM, had hacked into Chinese mobile phone companies to access millions of private text messages [Telegraph]. The claims have angered Beijing who launched a vitriol of condemnation through state media.

Chinese condemnation

China's official Xinhua news agency condemned the US over continuing revelations about Washington's surveillance activities by intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden. In a commentary, it said the US had turned out to be the "biggest villain in our age". The revelations "demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber-attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age," Xinhua said [BBC / Xinhua].

Washington has often accused China of being behind US cyber-attacks, but Snowden's leaks have effectively turned the tables and provided a trump card for China.

However, China's criticism has been considered by some to be rather hollow considering it has long been spying on its own citizens. There are also differing reasons behind the hacking employed by different states.

Modus operandi

While the US may well have been spying on its own citizens, and those around the world as well as state and private institutions, its motivation has been one of defence. China, on the other hand has been seeking to steal data to broaden its military and industry through IP [intellectual property] theft, as well as seek information on dissidents, and those it considers subversives.

While there should perhaps be safeguards concerning the monitoring of citizens in democratic countries, it is nonetheless important for the state to defend itself, and its citizens, from attacks both from abroad and domestically.

To prevent another 9/11, or worse - a nuclear attack, some would "very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses". Writing for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, says that while he is glad to live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties, there must at the same time be systems in place to prevent atrocities. Civil liberties might be lost through such surveillance, but without it the consequences could be far worse [NYT].

War on Terror

There is a gut feeling of revulsion and anger coming from citizens living in democratic countries that their governments might be spying on them, monitoring their online activity. There is something disconcerting about being watched, whether it be a peeping Tom surreptitiously looking at us through a keyhole or by state organs watching our every move through Internet searches, telephone calls or Facebook posts. But in order to protect both its citizens from another 9/11 or 7/7 style attack, there has to be a balance between privacy and security.

There is the argument that if one has nothing to hide, there is little to be concerned about from state monitoring. So far, there is little evidence to show that democratic states are using the information gathered on its citizens to round up people because of their political views alone. And unless one were engaged in surfing to sites distributing child pornography, one is unlikely to raise any eyebrows from one's viewing habits. It might be uncomfortable to know that the NSA or Britain's GCHQ are logging our porn habits or other online activity [Guardian], but as long as individual's browsing habits remain legal, such information is unlikely to create further scrutiny.

The same is not true of countries like China, Iran, Cuba and other totalitarian states. Citizens there can expect their microblogging accounts to be shut down at the very least, should they post sensitive material. Others may find themselves jailed or worse, for activity considered otherwise normal in the west.

Dystopian future

In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, he envisaged Telescreens that would spy on citizens. While the state might watch and listen to people's activity, the system was limited to only looking at a small number of individuals at any one time. Nonetheless, the fear that the state could be watching kept people in line.

The Internet has effectively brought Orwell's Telescreens into existence. Due to the huge amount of data being transmitted over the Internet, one may not be constantly monitored. But there exists the sheer possibility of that the state might well be looking.

That the US and Britain are using widespread surveillance techniques is perhaps not surprising. However, until now it was guesswork as to how sophisticated these systems were. If the papers released by Snowden are authentic, they have revealed how extensive and complex the state surveillance machine is - though there are those cynical of the reports and how far the surveillance extended [CNET].

Weakened defences

The publication of such material is not necessarily a good thing. While citizens in the west might feel better informed about how their country spies on them, at the same time it has weakened the West's defensive capabilities, especially in the "War on Terror".

Terrorists might have previously felt emboldened, thinking that the sheer size of the Internet and huge flow of data traffic, hid their activities. Now they will surely feel more uncertain as to whether they are being monitored and act with greater caution.

A recent episode of the BBC comedy news programme The Now Show joked that Islamic terrorists might now be easily spotted since they'd be the only people using the Post Office. But jokes aside, Snowden's whistleblowing will have made the war on terror much more difficult. His leaks have also lessened the United States' moral stance on its persistent criticism of state hacking, particularly that of China.

Snowden has been labelled a traitor by many is the US. He is in a sense far more than that. He could be said to have essentially aided terrorists, foreign states and those willing to damage western democracies.

Indeed the US are very clear at how they see the leaks."What Snowden has revealed has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies," General Keith Alexander, Director at the NSA, told ABC's This Week [BBC].

The issue has further complicated diplomatic relations with countries like China. Speaking on CBS's Face the Nation the US Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she was surprised that China did not use Edward Snowden's extradition as a chance to improve relations with the United States. That they didn't reinforced her view that "China clearly had a role in this." [BBC]

Enemy of the state

Snowden has claimed it would be difficult for the US to kill him [Telegraph]. But he has certainly made himself an Enemy of the State and may have few places to hide, even if organisations like Wikileaks and countries like China, Russia, Cuba and Ecuador are willing to aid his escape from the clutches of US law enforcement.

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

PRISM raises more questions than answers

In the last week The Guardian revealed that the NSA, the United States's National Security Agency, has been involved in the widespread surveillance of Internet users' data. Through a programme called PRISM the NSA are said to have had access to the servers of many Internet companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Skype.


The Obama administration have justified the operation by saying it is necessary to prevent terrorism, to aid law enforcement in preventing or solving crime as well as defending America's core interests and for maintaining national security.

The revelations have shocked many observers, especially privacy campaigners who say the methods used to protect the public and state go too far. But US President Barack Obama has defended the US surveillance practices saying, "You can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience."

In Britain Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the head of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which scrutinises Britain's spies, said there had to be some level of "intrusion" into private life to keep people safe from terrorism. Nonetheless his comments were tempered by the Prime Minister David Cameron who insisted that British intelligence agents always operated in way that is "proper and fitting".

"I want to reassure people as Prime Minister, as the minister for the intelligence services, that I see every day the vital work they do to keep us safe, but it is vital work that is done under a legal framework, within the law, and subject to proper scrutiny by an Intelligence and Security Committee," Cameron said [Telegraph / Daily Mail].


For some, the revelations are little surprise, even if true. The US and several other signatories have, for a long time, been involved in secretly monitoring public and private communications under the umbrella of ECHELON, a system that according to a report compiled by the European Union was capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmission, public switched telephone networks (which once carried most Internet traffic) and microwave links.

ECHELON has been referred to extensively in books and films. In the film Enemy of the State a group of rogue NSA agents kill a US Congressman attempting to block legislation that dramatically expands the surveillance powers of intelligence agencies. They try to cover up the murder and use ECHELON to track down lawyer Robert Clayton Dean [played by Will Smith] who risks making the details public.

An episode of PBS' Nova titled "Spy Factory" reported that the film's portrayal of the NSA's capabilities were fiction, and that although the agency can intercept transmissions, connecting the dots was difficult. But from what has been revealed this last week, PRISM may have been able to bridge such gaps.

Claims "exaggerated"

Fears expressed by some suggest that PRISM allows almost unfettered access to almost all Internet users' data, storing it and filtering through the information. Other suggest such fears are unfounded and that some of the claims are exaggerated with experts questioning its true power. Digital forensics professor Peter Sommer says PRISM's access might be more akin to a "catflap" than a "backdoor".

"The spooks may be allowed to use these firms' servers but only in respect of a named target," he told the BBC. "Or they may get a court order and the firm will provide them with material on a hard-drive or similar."

For their part Internet companies have denied they are actively offering information to the NSA, providing backdoor access or are in any way breaching the trust and privacy of their users.


In a blogpost, one of Google's founders and CEO Larry Page dismissed the reports and insisted that Google had not joined PRISM. "We have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers," Page said in a statement made jointly with David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer.

In a further clarification, Page went on to say that Google provides "user data to governments only in accordance with the law."

"Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don't follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users' data are false, period."

Facebook also denied it was complicit in provide NSA access to its servers. "We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers," the company's Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan said.

Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg also refuted the allegations published in the Guardian newspaper. "I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM," he wrote.

"Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday."

"When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if it is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure."

Microsoft also insisted it had not been a party to providing the NSA with access to its servers. "We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis," the company said in a statement. "In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."

Like many other Apple said they had not even heard of PRISM until last week's reports surfaced. "We have never heard of PRISM," they said, adding, "We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order." [Sky News / Guardian].

"Damage control"

Of course, the more cynically minded might think these companies are merely covering their back and are engaged in damage control. If it were proved without a shadow of doubt that Google, Facebook et al., were complicit in breaching the privacy of its users and providing the US government with user data, both their reputations and business might be severely affected.

Indeed some have already suggested that people seriously consider boycotting the use of such companies. Writing for Wired Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School suggested that consumers had a responsibility to leave social networks found to be collaborating secretly with intelligence services such as the US National Security Agency.

"Quit Facebook and use another search engine. It's simple." He added, "It's nice to keep in touch with your friends. But I think if you find out if it's true that these companies are involved in these surveillance programs you should just quit."

Few alternatives

Of course it's not quite as simple as Wu suggests. Many people have vast amounts of data stored on Internet company servers. Pulling off all of one's data stored on Google would not only be time consuming but users would also face a dilemma as to where to store this information, whether it be photographs or documents.

There may be alternatives to cloud storage, but those companies may too be implicated in the recent revelations. Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have all been named in the Guardian reports, thus there are few options open should users wish to move from one company to another.

There are companies around the world which offer similar Internet services, though the standards of quality and indeed privacy could be easily questioned. China's Baidu has its own Internet search engine, though it is heavily censored and it is highly likely that it is required to store IP addresses along with search data which in turn is handed over to Chinese authorities.

Even if the NSA are snooping, for most people the threat to their freedom is minimal. Incorrectly joining the dots could lead to false accusations, though most law abiding citizens are likely to remain untouched by anything found by US authorities' trawling of their data.

The same is not true of countries like China and Iran, where even a simple call for greater democracy can land one in jail, such as Liu Xiaobo who found himself incarcerated for 18 years.

Past complicity

It is not the first time Internet companies have been accused of working hand in hand with government. Yahoo were criticised for handing over user data to Chinese authorities.

Yahoo!, as well as other search engines, cooperated with the Chinese government in censoring search results. In April 2005, dissident Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison for "providing state secrets to foreign entities" as a result of being identified by IP address by Yahoo! The extent of Yahoo!'s foreknowledge of Shi's fate was disputed by the company's General Counsel and human rights organizations. Human rights groups also accuse Yahoo! of aiding authorities in the arrest of dissidents Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun.

In September 2003, dissident Wang Xiaoning was convicted of charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Yahoo! Hong Kong connected Wang's group to a specific Yahoo! e-mail address. Both Xiaoning's wife and the World Organization for Human Rights sued Yahoo! under human rights laws on behalf of Wang and Shi [Wikipedia]. 

Regards PRISM, Yahoo said, ""Yahoo! takes users' privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network." However, given their previous track record with other governments, one might question their integrity concerning such statements.

Minor concerns

But as said, even if the NSA is gathering data on everyone, sifting through such vast amounts of information makes any real threat to any one individual's privacy a minor concern.

Investigative journalist Russ Baker speaking on Russia Today dismissed claims that the NSA were not spying on Americans, as well as foreign nationals.

"Claims that the NSA is not spying on Americans are absurd because anybody could potentially commit a terrorist act. The reality is they're looking at all of us."

"They're trying to establish networks of communication but it's kind of ridiculous because you're looking for a needle in a haystack. You're looking at virtually the entire world trying to find just a handful of plots and, as we know, many of these plots turn out to be more complicated."

So what does all this mean for the average Internet user. In Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that law-abiding citizens had nothing to worry about, and there was no legal way of "opting out" of monitoring activity carried out in the name of national or global security.

Campaign group Privacy International said the reported existence of Prism confirmed its "worst fears and suspicions".

"Since many of the world's leading technology companies are based in the US, essentially anyone who participates in our interconnected world and uses popular services like Google or Skype can have their privacy violated through the Prism programme," the group said on its website.

Edward Snowden, the source of the leaked documents, said he had acted over concerns about privacy. "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded," he told the Guardian. Ironically he has effectively destroyed any chance of privacy for himself, now and in the future.


The timing of the leak, coming at the same moment that China's president Xi Jinping touched down in the US, was seen as somewhat suspicious by some.

"It is hard to believe that the timing of this disclosure, on the opening day of the Obama-Summit, is a coincidence," journalist Bill Bishop noted on his daily blog, asking, "Is someone leaking ahead of the summit with the goal of giving the Chinese more ammunition to claim US hypocrisy? If so, why are they doing it, and why through Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian?"

In fact coming at the same time as reports also emerged that Obama was drawing up a target list for cyberattacks, the leak was doubly suspicious [Guardian].

It is also interesting to note that Snowdon, who made the disclosure about PRISM, had taken refuge in Hong Kong, a Chinese protectorate, and from where extradition is virtually impossible.

The disclosure of PRISM invokes more questions than answers. How true is the report? Were, or are, the big Internet giants like Google Apple and Yahoo involved? Is is a false flag, or mere distraction from other issues? And is there something more sinister involved here, especially given the timing of events? After all the release of information this last week is a propaganda coup for China, given its continued accusation that the US are just as responsible for cyberattacks and cyberespionage as they themselves are accused!

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China