Washington – Over the past week the world learned that “Big Brother” as a concept was under imagined. His uncle, the one called Sam, has done better. He is everyone’s “friend” on Facebook without sending a friend request and he reads your mail to keep your track.
The outrage against the massive worldwide surveillance programs run by the America’s intelligence agencies, has been somewhat muted. It is as though people and governments – for different reasons – expect the private to be public in the electronic age.
But what of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower, who showed the extent of snooping by the US National Security Agency? Is he a hero for opening the door on this obsessive compulsive spying on ordinary citizens or a villain who jeopardized security by doing so? Or is he simply a naïve do-gooder who thinks of Hong Kong as a frontier of freedom?
The last question is the most fascinating. He seems to be slapping one Big Brother to help another and I don’t like either option. Both Snowden’s decision to flee the US for Hong Kong and the timing of his bombshell are deeply troubling. Hong Kong is no safe haven for brave conscience-stricken mavens. There is more to it than the reason he stated in an interview to The Guardian: “They have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” He didn’t elaborate on why the world’s asylum seekers weren’t rushing there.
Snowden also chose to drop his information nuke to coincide with the much-hyped US-China summit where President Barack Obama was to strongly raise China’s cyber espionage as a roaring issue. But when Uncle Sam’s extraordinary spying network hit the headlines, it choked American complaints mid-throat. Obama couldn’t very well take the high moral ground. He ceded it.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, walked off with a PR coup that leaders only dream about. He pointedly stayed in a downtown hotel – far from the summit setting designated by the Americans -- to avoid eavesdropping by the Americans, his officials said. Ahem. It became more like a Xi-Snowden summit with Obama struggling to stay in the frame.
The new cyber war is well and truly underway. China’s state-run media has embraced Snowden in kinship, reporting meticulously about his travails and why he should not be sent back to the US.
So why did Snowden give something this big to China on a platter, a country that snoops on and restricts its citizens and itself maintains a formidable army of hackers to steal secrets from other countries, including India? China’s cyber brigade has wormed its way into India’s defense and foreign ministries and has stolen many US industrial secrets.
By going to Hong Kong, Snowden probably ensures protection from the other “Big Brother” while he does the “right” thing by his conscience. He noticeably didn’t choose a friendly European country for flight but one that is a US rival. The CIA can’t really grab him from Hong Kong, which as a Special Administrative Region is a part of China, and under its intelligence apparatus.
When one considers these factors, the whole thing begins to smell like a Chinese takeaway.
Sabrina de Sousa, a former CIA officer who takes an interest in Asia, told me that Snowden would likely “be milked for every bit of information regarding US cyber capabilities, plans and intentions” by China. “His knowledge is a gold mine for the Chinese.” She also raised the possibility that he may “already be on the Chinese payroll.” The amount of information stored in the four computers Snowden left town with will certainly strengthen the great Chinese firewall.
The Chinese will not only learn the identities of undercover CIA and NSA officers around the world, they will also get a very real idea of America’s “cutting edge cyber defensive and offensive technologies,” according to de Sousa. “That is just for starters.” And she is not a fan of the extraordinary powers exercised by US intelligence agencies because of her own unsavory experience.
Meanwhile, ordinary netizens like you and me can ponder living with the knowledge that soon it will be not one but two big brothers watching us. Right now, the US is likely assembling huge counter intelligence task forces in the intelligence Community to determine the extent of damage caused by Snowden’s access to highly sensitive programs over the past few years.
The online trail left by Snowden shows a young, confident personality. He studied Mandarin, declared Buddhism as his religion and opined once that “China is definitely a good option career wise,” according to the New York Times. His choice of Hong Kong as a refuge must have made eminent sense – to him.