The man behind the public revelation of the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program has stepped forward, with defense contractor tech worker Edward Snowden admitting he blew the whistle to encourage debate on data monitoring. “I know the government will demonize me” Snowden told The Guardian, after opting to make his identity known after releasing several classified documents about the NSA snooping technology. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
Snowden is employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, a US defense contractor, and has been working at the NSA for the past four years, most recently based in Hawaii. It was there, over the past three weeks, that he copied top secret documents on PRISM in preparation for making them public, then flew to Hong Kong where he believes extradition processes – at least official ones – will be less successful.
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong” Snowden told The Guardian, describing his motivations for revealing PRISM’s existence and the extent of the NSA’s powers. “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”
According to the former CIA “technical assistant”, his concerns about the “massive surveillance machine” that elements of the US government are secretly building outweighed his roughly $200,000 income and access to his family in the US. Early hopes that the Obama administration would turn around post-9/11 monitoring were dashed as Snowden “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.”
However, while Hong Kong may have been Snowden’s pick because of its “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, that doesn’t mean he is necessarily safe there. The US government is likely to open a criminal probe into the leak, sources told Reuters, and US national intelligence director James Clapper has described the information being made public as dangerous for the insight it gives potential terrorists.
That, Snowden fears, could see the Chinese government or other powers in the area cut a deal with the US and unofficially ship him back to stand trial. His hope is that he can find asylum in a neutral location, with Iceland top of his wish-list.
As Snowden sees it, the best outcome would be for a discussion on rights and the limits of privacy. “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in” he told the paper. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
However, it’s highly possible that by making his identity public, Snowden will also shift the discussion onto him as a person, similar to the WikiLeaks controversy and its controversial founder Julian Assange. Snowden’s argument that he “carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest” may quickly become buried under the government’s response and the NSA’s fury.
Meanwhile the companies named in the documents continue to deny any such “backdoor access” to their systems to which the NSA hold the keys, with Google and others particularly outspoken about their privacy policies. Google, for instance, claims to have never even heard of PRISM until the documents leaked last week; meanwhile, subsequent whispers from the data collection machine have muddied the waters somewhat as to how much cooperation – technical and otherwise – actually takes place.