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

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