World

Snowden needs sunscreen: The whistleblower makes for Latin America

By Richard Poplak 24 June 2013

Wait a second—has John Le Carre been writing the news? As the Edward Snowden case steadily slips into the area of spy camp, the rest of us are wondering whether the Cold War ever really stopped at all. And whether a villa in Venezuela or Ecuador will be worth all the trouble. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Let’s get you caught up. Last week, the Guardian broke the story of a whistleblower named Edward Snowden, a clean-cut uber-dork who had access to all of the United States’ dirty laundry. He had this access because he worked for a government contractor named Booz Allen Hamilton, for whom he set up big computer systems that trolled through the electronic mail, credit card slips, Google searches, and Facebook friend requests of everyone in the world named Mohammed, to say nothing of the rest of us. Ostensibly, Snowden was as high level a spook as the world has ever created, a man who harnessed the power of Big Data to serve what he considered an increasingly evil master: President Barack Obama. For that, he earned about $200,000 a year, with benefits.

We learned that the United States and England had hacked the phone accounts of diplomats, dug into the e-stuff of regular Americans by requesting phone records, all under the auspices of entities like the National Security Agency. Privacy, Edward Snowden contended, was a thing of the past: our digital footprints were more like digital nudey pics, leaving us naked and exposed before Big Brother, who knows our next move before we think to make it.

Thank Jobs for the likes of Snowden, speaking truth to power. Except, power had been spoken truth to long before he came on the scene. Anyone in America fool enough to think that the government didn’t have its hands in the informational cookie jar was deluding themselves, or simply not reading Wired, or any other publication doing fine reporting on ever dwindling nature of privacy. To wit:

“Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion centre should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realisation of the ‘total information awareness’ program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.”

So wrote James Bamford in March of last year, for the cover of the magazine—it wasn’t like the story was hiding with the classified ads for pectoral implants or X-ray glasses. Seems like no one was paying attention. To be fair, nothing is sexier than a “whistleblower”—the individual who cracks the cone of silence from the inside, who risks limb and liberty to deliver a spectacular act of conscience. We hear the nails thunk into the wood of the proverbial crucifix, and we bow our heads before their sacrifice.

No doubt, Snowden’s case will continue to embarrass the United States by revealing the breadth of their, um, curiosity. But if Americans, or the citizens of any country, are so concerned about their privacy, may I respectfully guide the eye of the average citizen to Brazil for a suggestion on how best to proceed? The age of Big Brother is upon us. Do we need a whistleblower to tell us that the wet stuff falling from the sky is rain?

On Sunday, the Snowden case took a turn for the loony. The kid has consistently insisted that he squealed because he just couldn’t bear to see the United States behave like an authoritarian overlord from one of his cherished sci-fi series. What does he do? Teams up with Russia. Yup, the same Russia that persecuted a band for playing in a church. That routinely subverts what rights its citizens have left, which are practically none. That is led by that lover of small children, bunnies and old Care Bear videos: Vladimir V. Putin.

On Saturday, the United States made a formal request to the administrators of Hong Kong for the extradition of Edward Snowden, who was holed up in the territory polishing his whistle. That would have been a field day for lawyers in both countries. It was not to be. Apparently, the paperwork wasn’t filled out properly, and there was “nothing” Hong Kong could do to prevent Snowden from boarding a flight to Moscow. At this point, Wikileaks chimed in on Twitter, insisting that Snowden was safely en route to a “democratic” country, and travelling with a Wikileaks advisor, surname “Harrison”.  This is most likely Julian Assange’s right hand lawyer, Sarah Harrison. With him, Snowden carried four laptops worth of scuttlebutt. If I was a passenger on that flight, the last thing I’d be surprised to see would be an incoming Patriot missile.

It does seem, however, that Snowden is skedaddling for Venezuela, via Cuba. Both Venezuela and Cuba are often the desired choice for retired spies, due to their abundance of sunshine, mojitos and spicy pork dishes. They are hotbeds of political tolerance, led by benevolent leaders who love nothing more for their people to be happy. In a word, Snowden is making for utopia.

He did leave a little gift parting gift for China—proof that the United States has been—gasp!—hacking into Chinese computers. As Xinhua, the Chinese state run news service put it, his claims “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.”

So this is where we stand: the world’s loudest whistleblower has teamed up with Russia to evade the American authorities, and ends up visiting Hugo Chavez’s tomb before being shown to his new digs. Even better, he could end up in the glittering lights of Ecuador. (At this writing, the Snowden goose chase is inconclusive though Ecuador has confirmed that he did apply for asylum.) It would be funny if it weren’t so absurd, and if we didn’t continue to be so complacent in the face of incontrovertible facts: the digital revolution is not “democratising”, but the single most powerful leap towards authoritarianism in the history of our species. Snowden is a pimple on the butt cheeks of what we already know: our every move is being watched, scrutinised, run through a main frame.

If you’re okay with that, carry on as you were. If you’re not, now may be the time to speak up. Just don’t text me about it. DM

Photo: Journalists await passengers of a flight from Hong Kong while trying to ascertain whether fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was aboard, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, June 23, 2013. Snowden is seeking asylum in Ecuador, the Quito government said on Sunday, after Hong Kong let him leave its territory despite Washington’s efforts to extradite him on espionage charges. An aircraft believed to be carrying Snowden landed in Moscow, and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said in a statement he was “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum”. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

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