Edward Snowden, a technology specialist and former undercover CIA employee, has come forward as the man who blew the whistle on the global surveillance programmes of the United States National Security Agency. His admission could lead to prosecution and he is already combing the planet – from Iceland to Hong Kong – looking for a safe haven after admitting responsibility for one of the greatest intelligence leaks in United States history.
The Guardian, which broke the story with the Washington Post, says that Snowden has voluntarily unmasked himself. He claims he spoke out over the scandal of systematic surveillance of innocent citizens and now, like Bradley Manning, who is currently on trial for providing WikiLeaks with tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables, faces the full fury of a US administration that shows zero tolerance over whistle blowing.
If you want to know how we got here, the Washington Post provides a helpful timeline that shows how the expansion of global surveillance can be traced back to the 9/11 attacks and how both George W. Bush and Barack Obama are equally culpable in establishing and maintaining a global strategy for invading the privacy of ordinary citizens at home and abroad.
Snowden and Manning are key figures in combating the dangerous drift towards systematic and secret government monitoring of people’s personal lives. Their actions provide journalists with a devastating story which poses questions about the fragility of privacy in the age of open information and about how much society and citizens are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.
Despite his promises of more openness President Barack Obama has failed to live up to his transparency pledges and has, instead, vigorously carried forward an information strategy as part of the “war on terror” which has isolated and attacked whistle blowing even where it is in the public interest.
The disturbing news that major Internet companies are implicated in this strategy has blown apart confidence that the open information landscape society is a resilient force for free speech. Apple, Facebook and Google have struggled to maintain their credibility on privacy issues after fresh revelations of their co-operation with the US spy agency.
Reports in The Guardian, the Washington Post and the New York Times, suggest that some major technology companies have made it easier for intelligence agencies to access the information they want.
The companies’ denials concentrate on suggestions that they gave US security staff “direct access” to their servers and refuted evidence from inside the NSA that there was “Collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
According to the New York Times, some companies, including Google and Facebook, discussed setting up secure online “rooms” where requested information could be sent and accessed by the National security Agency. Making such arrangements raises enormous privacy concerns.
In other countries – Britain in particularly – questions are now being asked to what extent the UK security services have been implicated and involved in the surveillance strategy of the US.
Meanwhile, Snowden, currently in Hong Kong is seeking “asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy,” but he faces an uncertain future. Although Iceland has indicated that he may get support the law in Hong Kong appears to provide for his extradition to the United States.
And Bradley Manning faces a lifelong jail term if he is convicted, as expected, over passing on information to WikiLeaks.
Journalists, who rely on confidential disclosure from public-spirited officials in order to maintain scrutiny of politicians will be among the primary victims of the clampdown on whistle blowing, but democracy itself will suffer when the state has a free hand to follow, monitor and spy on its citizens. Calls for a debate over the power of the security state and the need for transparency are long overdue.