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[Newsmaker] The human face to digital scandal

Edward Snowden (AP-Yonhap News)
Edward Snowden (AP-Yonhap News)
Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed routine mass collection of communications records by the United States government, has resurfaced for the first time since Monday.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, he insisted that he was not in Hong Kong to avoid justice.

“I would rather stay and fight the U.S. government in the courts, because I have faith in HK’s rule of law,” he said.

He said this, though while effectively in hiding. His whereabouts has not been known since he checked out of his hotel Monday, and the newspaper refused to say how the interview was conducted, oddly jarring with the boldness of his statements.

“The reality is that I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European or Asian,” he said.

Already the battle lines of public debate are drawn, with people lining up to lionize or denounce him.

Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s praise for him contrasts, for example, with the views of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

“He is a traitor. The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are and it is a giant violation of the law,” Boehner told ABC News.

Snowden, who worked for intelligence contractor Booz-Allen, leaked a set of PowerPoint slides that revealed the workings of PRISM, a U.S. National Security Agency program that collects communications data.

The slides he leaked suggest that the NSA could directly access the servers of major U.S. service providers, including Microsoft, Google and Facebook, but these providers all quickly denied allowing access.

Snowden said he could wire-tap anyone without extra procedures, but U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper insisted that PRISM collected only records and not phone conversations.

He also said that data on Americans was not collected intentionally, but this has done predictably little to soothe the ire of non-Americans angered by the news, notably in Germany, the European country most looked at by PRISM.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he welcomed debate on the issue, raising the question of why he didn’t suggest one before the leak, and how the non-Americans his government is actually spying on should be involved in that debate.

The attention on Snowden and the inevitable legal and diplomatic battle over his fate could detract from the more important issues, such as sovereignty over communications, whether governments should routinely collect such data and how open they should be about it.

By Paul Kerry (paulkerry@heraldcorp.com)
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