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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2962

Edward Snowden: baddy or chum?

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, currently living in Russia on one-year temporary asylum visa, has not lost his ability to surprise the world on sporadic basis and leave his former employer, the NSA – National Security Agency of the USA - in a state of perpetual suspense, since taking refuge in Russia in dramatic fashion in the last summer.

On Christmas day, Mr Snowden delivered the Alternative Christmas Message on Channel 4, the British TV Channel. The traditional Christmas message was delivered an hour earlier on the BBC by the Queen. In two-minute message, Mr Snowden highlighted the danger of losing individual privacy, due to numerous surveillance schemes conducted by Western governments, in order to protect their own civilians.

"A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought. And that's a problem because privacy matters, privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be,” said Mr Snowden in him emotive message. “We have sensors in our pockets that track us wherever we go,” warned Mr Snowden, perhaps, referring to the mobile devices that have become an integral part of our lives at present.

While allowing Mr Snowden to air his Christmas thought to a global audience, the Russian government led by Mr Putin scored yet another spectacular PR coup – seemingly warming up to the sentiment of freedom of expression, something that the US government always cherishes and wants the rest of the world to adhere to.

Mr Snowden, in the eyes of most of the US defence establishment, is a ‘traitor’. He has put the NSA in a very awkward position, indeed. His well-calculated leaks, which usually come in dribs and drabs, often have the political equivalent of Moscow’s winter chill: it has paralysed the working relationships of the US allies as never before; when Mr Snowden is about to open his mouth, the security agencies automatically go into passive mode while leaving the talk of denials or defence at the hands of beleaguered diplomats.

In a peculiar outburst, James Woolsey, the former CIA chief, wants him to be hanged by the neck until he is dead. There is no doubt that many in the defence establishment agree with Mr Woolsey’s position, which inevitably leave those who preach the rest of the world about upholding human rights in an embarrassing lurch.

In short, Mr Snowden has already done the damage. In his own words, his mission is accomplished. His disclosure of phone tappings, carried out by the NSA on Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is a case in point. Although, both countries put on a harmonious face in the aftermath, the relationship at the top level may not be the same in the foreseeable future; mutual suspicion is not the best catalyst for a meaningful, lasting relationship.

Unlike Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks holed up in Ecuadorian embassy in London at present, Mr Snowden is less controversial at personal level and has been well-liked by friends and acquaintances. He is the runner-up for the Person of the Year title for Time Magazine in 2013, lost only to Pope Francis, the people’s pope.

The relationship between Australian and Indonesia suffered the same. And, so did that of the USA and Brazil. Mr Snowdon may have been partially elated when the Obama administration ordered a review of the NSA spying activities. Besides, tech giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook, in a rare gesture of seeing eye-to- eye, have collectively called for substantial reforms to the activities of the NSA. There is no wonder that Mr Snowden has every reason to be happy for part of his mission being accomplished.

Before Christmas, there were rumours about a possible pardon for Mr Snowden in exchange for his silence. President Obama, however, implied that he was not Santa Claus, when the voices were raised to that effect in the US in the spirit of Christmas – to please, what he considers as, troublemakers.

Much to Mr Snowden’s delight, there was a high-profile supporter for his cause this week, who openly admired what he had been doing in the name of the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Sir Dr Tim Berners Lee, the British inventor of the World Wide Web, declared that the individuals of Mr Snowden’s calibre must be protected, not hounded. Sir Tim, who never profited from his invention, may have been frustrated by the manipulations of the internet by various governments under the pretext of the security.

The prospect of a pardon got a further boost on Saturday when a former British spy chief said that it was likely in return for not leaking any more damaging information. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, who is familiar with the pulse of US spying agencies, believes that it could happen at some point in order to limit the long-term damage.

Edward Snowden drama explicitly shows how an excess can lead to a defect, and then a permanent damage. It is high time the activities of over-zealous technocrats and officials were put under scanner for a bit more scrutiny.

- Asian Tribune -

Edward Snowden: baddy or chum?
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