By Stefanie Garber
Is Edward Snowden a freedom-fighter, bravely sacrificing himself to defend the liberty of the most liberty-loving nation of all? Or is he a traitor, a leaker of confidential information, almost certainly working on the side of the terrorists? To make up your own mind, read on:
Why are we talking about Edward Snowden?
Edward Snowden was your average twenty-nine year old computer guy living in Hawaii, surfing the waves and the information superhighway (apparently we’re revisiting the 90s today). The only difference between Snowden and the nerdy kid you call when you’re computer breaks down? Snowden’s company was contracted to the NSA, the National Security Agency.
Between June 5 and June 23, Snowden provided top-secret documents to journalists from The Guardian and The Washington Post regarding the NSA’s wide-scale surveillance programs. He’s now being hunted by the FBI with all the passion and determination of a One Direction fan who knows that Zane is in town.
What’s the NSA?
The NSA is the intelligence agency attached to the Department of Defence. While its cooler cousin the CIA is zipping around the world interrogating spies, the NSA does the intelligence community’s grunt work: intelligence gathering from communication networks. The stated mission of the NSA is secure communications or more precisely, making sure other people’s communications are as unsecure as possible.
So what was NSA trying to keep secret?
Snowden leaked information that the NSA surveillance program was monitoring the online and telephone communications of millions of people, including Americans.
Now, the NSA is not officially allowed to spy on US citizens within the US. However, it is allowed to spy on foreigners in the US or information from foreigners that passes through the US. Which is convenient because much of the world’s communication is routed via US companies or servers. Oh, and they can collect information on US citizens as long as it’s “incidental” to collecting other information. Oh and NSA guidelines state that analysts only have to be 51 percent sure that a person is a foreigner. There are lots of strict guidelines with so many exceptions that the NSA can basically record whatever it likes.
Snowden revealed that a program known as PRISM has been systematically collecting communications from Google, Facebook, YouTube and Skype, among other tech giants. If you’re like 90 percent of the world and have Facebook open in another tab, give a shout-out to the nice NSA analyst reading along. Hey, Scott! Phone companies are also complicit, including most major US providers. It’s unclear whether carrier pigeons have been compromised but their upload speeds are notoriously slow.
Most of the information collected is metadata, meaning information about the message. This sounds innocent enough until you consider that the time, location, size and origin of an email could be just as useful as the content itself. Boundless Informant, a NSA analysis program, recorded that 97 billion metadata records from computer networks and 125 billion telephone metadata records were gathered in March alone.
The extent to which the NSA is monitoring the actual content of emails is less clear, though the Washington Post suggests the agency was collecting 1.7 billion emails daily in 2010. New information also suggests that EU and UN offices in the US were also hacked. The NSA is now the proud owner of the world’s largest collection of Bank Ki-Moon memes.
The NSA previously got in trouble back in 2007 for spying on US citizens without a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. The program was halted but revived a mere three months later by an amendment to the FISA Act. The NSA skipped along on its merry way, now with a big smiley face sticker from Congress.
Indeed, the programs have been vigorously defended by the administration, the Attorney-General’s department and courts. Obama has resolutely supported them, causing thousands of disillusioned left-wing students to take solace in ice cream and re-runs of The West Wing.
General Keith Alexnder, Director of the NSA, claims that information obtained by PRISM has helped to prevent 50 terrorist attacks worldwide, at least 10 within the US. However, it’s unclear why the program is not more targeted. A success rate of 50 for every billion emails would earn a failing grade in even the most relaxed Arts course at uni.
What penalties does Snowden face?
The US has charged Snowden with theft and espionage.
If convicted, Snowden faces a maximum of 10 years in jail for each count under the Espionage Act. However, only nine cases have ever been brought under the act and sentences tend to be light, less than two years. That said, if the leak “aids the enemy”, the sentence could be life in jail, as in the case of Bradley Manning who provided information to Wikileaks.
Essentially, we can safely narrow down the possible sentence to somewhere between 2 years and life. Which is absolutely no help at all.
What can Snowden do next?
Whatever the outcome, it’s safe to say that Snowden won’t be invited to the NSA Christmas party. In fact, Snowden won’t be attending any parties in the near future unless they’re held in the Moscow International Airport transit zone aka Partay Central.
Snowden, aware the documents were Kardashian-baby-photos levels of secret, holed up in Hong Kong while leaking the information. Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the US has an exception for crimes of a “political character”. However, after an extradition request was filed with Hong Kong, Snowden fled the country quick-smart before anyone could start thinking too hard about sending him home.
The world’s borders are not kind to a young man being hunted by the most powerful country in history. Snowden fled to Moscow, presumably basing his decision on a 1978 copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. While Putin and Obama are not exactly drinking buddies, neither can Russia afford to openly defy the United States as it could during the Cold War.
Snowden is now stuck in the transit lounge of Moscow airport, which technically is not Russian territory. No one has seen Snowden at the airport all week, so presumably the Russians have helped him hide away in a transit lounge safehouse. Putin can never resist a bit of KGB-era intrigue.
Snowden’s options from here are underwhelming. First he has to identify a country without an extradition treaty who is happy to piss off the world’s largest giver of aider and owner of military. Second, he has to get there from Moscow, without stopping over in any US allied nations or passing Go and collecting $200.
The irony is that Snowden, someone who loves freedom enough to risk his own, is now only welcome in countries that are pretty anti-freedom. His most attractive option, Iceland, has categorically ruled out granting him asylum on the basis that he would have to get there to fill out the paperwork (which seems like a a bit of a lame excuse, Iceland). This leaves him with:
- Iran (Come for the weather! Stay for the misogynistic oppression!)
- Pakistan (Enjoy the history, anti-US protests and occasional drone strikes!)
- Angola (Not even currently at war!)
- Cuba (Easy proximity to Guantanamo Bay!)
- Venezuela (Our empanadas are remarkable and so is our murder rate!)
- North Korea (Come! And then never leave again!) and
- Ecuador (We don’t seem so bad in comparison!)
Also, Snowden may not have a passport any more? He’s playing the ultimate game of Would You Rather, options being spend twenty years in federal prison or the rest of your life in a dictatorial hellhole. Ecuador has been reluctant to take Snowden as they are still struggling to evict their last gatecrasher, Julian Assange. Ecuadorian officials basically said “get to an embassy and we’ll talk,” which is a hilarious joke considering Snowden cannot even get to a 7-11 right now.
As his options dwindle by the day, Snowden may have to surrender to a US court. Undoubtedly, the whole world will be watching as those who watch us try to defend their actions before a judge.