The Snowden Files


In the final week of 2014 North Korea’s internet and 3G mobile network came to a standstill. Before their official news agency released racist outrage against the US President, we can imagine an image of their own leader taking off his khaki cap as he got down to reboot a router before speaking to a call centre handler in another country, suspiciously called Kim, who asked him if he tried turning it off and on again. Eventually the penny must have dropped. To the delight of the rest of the free world, Barack Obama had appeared to deliver on his promise and flexed a muscle against the censorship of satire.

The official US response against the hacking of Sony Pictures came with sanctions but there should be little doubt how much control they have in the world of telecommunications, as every reader of Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files will know. The book will also explain to anyone who in the last week has had a fear that their private emails, online chats, SMS message and calls may suddenly become accessible to the secret services with further surveillance laws to be introduced following the horrific terror attacks in Paris this month, that this already the case, unless they are already encrypting their communications.

It was the realisation of this, between 2009 and 2012, coupled with the fact that workers at these agencies were looking at and circulating private images of ordinary citizens for their own titillation, which spurred the right-leaning Republic libertarian Edward Snowden, an IT contractor who worked for America’s National Security Agency (NSA), to reveal the secrets of the secret services.

The book demonstrates that Snowden then became a political pawn for the Russians, a red herring Putin flourished with a smile hiding graver misdemeanours; Snowden claimed he was a whistle blower while his homeland viewed him as a traitor on the run.

It is the tale of another recent significant Guardian exposure, alongside the brilliant investigations into the conspiracy of phone-hacking and the lawlessness of undercover police in the UK, with elements of chase and paranoia, as men without surnames come to The Guardian offices, overseeing them destroy their hard drives while warning of potential enemy spies looking through their office windows. But it is also deeply topical now, with the current debate of extending surveillance laws to be able to decrypting data as proposed by David Cameron. The problem there, as noted in the book, and elsewhere in the last week, inserting deliberate weaknesses into encryption systems make them vulnerable to exploitation of the terrorist forces, the enemy the greater surveillance is designed to thwart.

Obama is quoted in the book as explaining for all the data held, it is only terrorist activities the security forces are interested in. And there can be no denying that there is a need for security forces to protect in the now constant threats from terror against Western civilisation. But that doesn’t explain the spying on the phones of leaders of allies or even more worryingly, Snowden’s reports that workers in agencies regularly abuse their position, which suggests that internal governance needs to be dramatically improved to protect the privacy (and rights in the US) of innocent citizens.  Most terrorists are already known to the security forces, yet according to Snowden the security services have recruited employees that are abusing their resources while lives are lost.

Rather than the Ian Fleming portrayal, Harding notes in the book, spies are not gentlemen and ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’s’ will not suffice. It is essential that as well as laws to help counter terror, there are also laws and governance to protect the privacy and freedom of citizens.

The epilogue in the 2014 edition of the book finds Snowden still living in hiding somewhere near Moscow; he shops for his groceries, head down in a cap, returning to eat alien food while trying to remotely win hearts and minds back in the States in the hope he will one day be allowed to return. Evidence suggests he is not a secret agent, just a concerned citizen who wanted to raise awareness for his countrymen. He has done that, while also broadening the understanding of non-US citizens who use servers based there every day.


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