On March 12, 2013, James Clapper, Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, appeared before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Asked whether America’s National Security Agency collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper responded: “No sir. Not wittingly.” This answer was unsurprising. If Clapper had said “yes”, he would have been admitting that his agency had conducted operations that violated the U.S. Constitution.
A 29-year-old NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was watching Clapper’s testimony with an especially keen eye. Snowden knew Clapper was lying; he knew the NSA had, in the decade since 9/11, vastly expanded its domestic data-gathering programs. Since December 2012, Snowden had been in touch with a Guardian columnist named Glenn Greenwald. Even as Clapper misled the Congress, Snowden was already stockpiling documents for the biggest intelligence spill since Bradley Manning’s WikiLeaks revelations.
The Snowden Files, written by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, reminds us that Snowden’s story is still a work in progress. His leaks are still being published, and the man himself remains in Russia, stuck in legal limbo. The drama remains tantalisingly incomplete. For the moment, Harding has written an absorbing on-the-fly history of its opening acts.
On June 5, 2013, Snowden’s leaks began to appear in print. First came the revelation that the NSA was collecting the phone-call “metadata” of millions of customers of the American telecom Verizon. The Agency wasn’t recording the content of the conversations, but it was storing information about number-pairings, phone locations, and call durations.
A day later it emerged that the NSA was gathering Internet data on an even larger scale. Under a program called Prism, the Agency accessed data stored by its Silicon Valley “partners” – among them Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – in order to keep a record of their customers’ online activities, including their search histories and the contents of their emails. A subsequent leak revealed the Agency had also hacked directly into Google’s and Yahoo’s data cables in Britain.
Unlike old-school wiretaps, the NSA’s bulk data-gathering programs didn’t discriminate. They collected everyone’s data by default, in apparent violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against searches conducted without “probable cause” and a particularised warrant. The NSA, Snowden believed, had hijacked the internet and turned it into a giant spying machine. “With this capacity,” he alleged, “the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting.”
Leaks about the NSA’s overseas operations followed, including some awkward revelations about America’s – and Australia’s – eavesdropping on friendly nations. In the meantime Snowden, who never intended to stay anonymous, had outed himself as the whistleblower in a video interview posted on the Guardian's website. The interview took place in Hong Kong, where Snowden had fled in order to avoid extradition to the US. He subsequently flew to Russia, where the Putin regime granted him a one-year visa, which is due to expire on August 1, 2014.
Who then is Edward Snowden? The youngster we meet in the book’s early pages is an unpromising figure: a high-school drop-out and tech geek who posts forum messages under the username TheTrueHOOHA. His youthful politics are tiresome, but not in the way you might expect. Far from being an Assange-style anarchist, Snowden has always leant to the Right. In his windy youth he railed against socialism, and restrictions on assault weapons, and respectable wages for McDonald’s workers, and the existence of a welfare safety-net. Later on, working at the NSA, he was known for keeping a copy of the US Constitution on his desk. In 2012 he contributed to the presidential campaign of the libertarian Ron Paul.
When the Snowden movie gets made, there may be no Hollywood actor nerdy enough to tackle the central role, except perhaps for the kid who played McLovin. Snowden is every inch a child of the Internet age. Even after a three-month posting in Hawaii he still looked Vampire-pale, having exposed himself to no source of light except his computer screen. He is, or was, a devotee of the online game Tekken: “playing an everyman-warrior battling evil against the odds shaped his moral outlook, he later said.” When his Hong Kong lawyers raised the prospect of jail time, Snowden seemed unfazed – until they told him he would have no access to a computer or the web. Then he panicked.
But when the pallid mariner began to tell his story, he had some disturbingly eloquent things to say about his special subject: privacy in the age of the web. “The internet is on principle a system that you reveal yourself to in order to fully enjoy,” he wrote to one journalist. “It is a TV that watches you. The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the internet, and governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate.” It worried Snowden that the Government’s appetite for private data, and its capacity to archive it, were growing all the time. It worried him that he, as a mere contractor with a private firm, could easily go rogue and tap the wires of anyone, up to and including the President. It worried him that he knew all these things and the public didn’t.
And what thinking person wouldn’t have been worried, in Snowden’s position? A troubling maxim emerges from this book. The more you know about computers, the more their power will tend to alarm you. Snowden knows an awful lot about them, and they terrify him. When a journalist turns up to interview him wielding a smartphone, Snowden flips out. The NSA, he explains, is more than capable of hacking such a device and using it as a microphone or geolocator. When his lawyers come to visit him, Snowden insists that they surrender their phones and shut them in a fridge. It sounds like paranoia, until you reflect that Snowden, on this subject, knows exactly what he’s talking about.
Most of us are addicted to the Internet without understanding much about the way it works. Snowden’s whistle-blast should snap us out of our sleepwalk. Now, you feel, might be a very good time to start talking seriously about our online privacy – now, while we still have some left.
Beyond that, he raises other questions that require out attention. The gravest charge that’s been made against him is the accusation, levelled by John Kerry and others, that he has put American lives at risk, by tipping off terrorists to the NSA’s methods.
But the NSA’s own methods represent a different kind of threat to American life, as Snowden has compelling argued. His leaks should make us re-examine an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged since 9/11. Why should national security be allowed to trump individual privacy? Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe an open society, if it is to remain an open society, can never fully secure itself against violent internal or external attack. Maybe the preservation of privacy is worth some risk. In the immediate wake of 9/11 it was hard to discuss such questions soberly. Snowden has dramatically returned them to the table.
As a result, he might never see America again. If he were to return there now, he would risk receiving a prison sentence even steeper than the one handed to Bradley Manning, who got 35 years. Snowden sacrificed his whole future in an attempt to trigger an informed public debate about online privacy. The least we can do in return is have that debate. At the same time, we need to resist the idea that he is a traitor to his country. The best answer to that charge has already been provided by Snowden himself. “If I’m a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all my information to the American public … If they [the Government] see that as treason, I think people really need to consider who do they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.”