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The Programmer Who Came In From The Cold

Last updated on: June 26, 2013 16:08 IST

Whether history will remember Edward Snowden as a traitor to his country or as a champion for free speech and less intrusive government is hard to tell, but the issues he has brought into focus need deep thought, writes Ajit Balakrishnan

The story so far is right out of a John Le Carre novel.

On May 10 Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American programmer, boards a plane to Hong Kong from Hawaii where he lives, telling his girlfriend and his employers that he would be gone for "a couple of weeks" to find a cure for epilepsy, a condition he had recently begun to suffer from. A month later, the British newspaper The Guardian publishes a lengthy interview with him, saying, among other things, that "The NSA (the National Security Administration of the United States) has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards".

He identifies himself as an employee of Booze Allen Hamilton, an outsourcing firm who had deployed him in the US National Security Administration in a role that allowed him unfettered access to the computers used by that top secret organisation.

Soon after his interview with The Guardian, on June 10, Snowden checks out of his Hong Kong hotel and disappears from sight. On June 21 the United States government files espionage charges against Snowden and asks the Hong Kong authorities to detain him for extradition to the US. Two days later Snowden catches a flight on Aeroflot, the State-owned airline, to Moscow. When the American authorities protest, the Hong Kong government merely says that the documents submitted by the US did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law" and that it did not have any legal basis to prevent him from leaving. On arrival at Moscow’s SheremetyevoAirport, he is led to the transit zone. As of Wednesday morning he was there while the US authorities keep pressing their Russian counterparts, to no avail, to hand Snowden over to them.

Snowden’s revelations so far have stunned the world which waits now with bated breath wondering what more he will reveal. At the centre of this hullaballoo is the so-called PRISM project run by the United States government's National Security Agency, which, according to a June 6 report in The Washington Post collects  data "directly from the servers of these US Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” The modus operandi was that since the server computers for these services are in the United States the communication messages between two users in India, for example, on any of these services can be easily monitored by US intelligence organizations. In a 30-day period in March 2013, says The Guardian, quoting a document provided to them by Snowden, 6.3 billion intelligence messages were collected from India alone, making India next only to Iran, Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt in terms of the volume of messages intercepted and examined.

Open, loosely governed, democracies such as India are particularly vulnerable because even the most basic security features are missing in our government’s operations in the internet age. For instance, senior government officials such as secretaries of departments, ambassadors and Army generals are free to use and do use free email accounts from Gmail, Yahoo Mail and so on for their official correspondence. They do this for good reason -- the government provided email system has too little storage space and lacks many basic features and sometimes does not work at all. Strategic government websites whose databases contain confidential information are easy to hack because they have not been “hardened” to keep out intruders. Critical telecom infrastructure like routers are all imported and bugs can be planted inside these devices by foreign intelligence agencies to monitor network traffic to and from defense and other strategic organisations. Many of our major mobile phone companies have outsourced their entire telecom network infrastructure to international firms in their effort to save capital expenditure.

When John Le Carre's novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, was published in 1963 it caused a flutter because it portrayed the intelligence operations of both the Western and the Warsaw Pact countries as expediently amoral but done in the name of national security and for the preservation of democracy and democratic values. What fate will befall Edward Snowden and whether history will remember him as a traitor to his country or as a champion for free speech and less intrusive government is hard to tell, but the issues he has brought into focus need deep thought.

Ajit Balakrishnan (ajitb@rediffmail.com) is the author of The Wave Rider

Image: A banner supporting Edward Snowden at Hong Kong's financial Central district. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Ajit Balakrishnan