How China’s surveillance state was a mirror to the US for whistle-blower Edward Snowden

Shi Jiangtao

American whistle-blower Edward Snowden said Beijing’s use of technology to control its citizens and electronically track US targets prompted him to investigate and then expose Washington’s mass surveillance programme.

In his book Permanent Record, published on Wednesday, the former US spy agency contractor who now lives in exile in Russia, detailed how he fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow after creating one of the most serious security breaches in American history.

Snowden, who was a technician subcontracted to the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency for seven years, said he began to have suspicions about secret post-September 11 US surveillance programmes after he was asked in 2009 to brief a conference in Tokyo on how Chinese spy agencies were targeting the US intelligence community.

Preparing for the briefing, Snowden said he became aware that China’s surveillance of private communications was “utterly mind-boggling”. He was initially “so impressed by the system’s sheer achievement and audacity that I almost forgot to be appalled by its totalitarian controls”, he said.

He then began to feel disturbed when he realised that America, an internet and software power, might have done similar things to its people and the world.

“There was simply no way for America to have so much information about what the Chinese were doing without having done some of the very same things itself, and I had the sneaking sense while I was looking through all this China material that I was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America,” he said.

“What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might be – could be – doing secretly to the world.”

Wanted: a new German or French home for Edward Snowden, who never chose Russia

Snowden flew to Hong Kong on May 20, 2013, after leaving his job at an NSA facility in Hawaii. While in the city, he leaked thousands of classified NSA documents, revealing the global surveillance apparatus run by the United States on China, Russia and many of America’s close allies as well as a mass surveillance programme collecting the phone records of unsuspecting Americans.

The US government charged Snowden on June 14, 2013, under the Espionage Act, and requested his extradition on June 21. Two days later, he flew to Moscow.

Snowden said he was forced to leave Hong Kong because the city’s government resisted any United Nations efforts to grant him protection there.

“The Hong Kong government, under Chinese pressure or not, resisted any UN effort at affording me international protection on its territory,” he said.

“In other words, Hong Kong was telling me to go home and deal with the UN from prison. I wasn’t just on my own – I was unwelcome. If I was going to leave freely, I had to leave now.”

Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the US stipulates that it cannot surrender a suspect accused of offences that would not be crimes under Hong Kong law.

The treaty also allows a suspect to walk free if charges are ruled by Hong Kong’s courts to be politically motivated.

Hong Kong government’s decision to allow Snowden to leave “on his own accord” angered the Washington, which accused the city authorities of deliberating releasing a fugitive.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post in 2013, Snowden said the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. None of the documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems, he said.

Among the targets in Hong Kong, according to Snowden, were university and public officials, businesses and students. The documents also pointed to hacking activity by the NSA against mainland targets.

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden tells life story and why he leaked in new memoir

In the book, he said he sought refuge in Hong Kong first, after initially excluding Russia, China, Africa Latin America and the Middle East, because the city had “a vibrant media and protest culture, not to mention largely unfiltered Internet”.

“[It was] the closest I could get to no man’s land,” he wrote.

“It was an oddity, a reasonably liberal world city whose nominal autonomy would distance me from China and restrain Beijing’s ability to take public action against me or the journalists – at least immediately – but whose de facto existence in Beijing’s sphere of influence would reduce the possibility of unilateral US intervention.

“In a situation with no promise of safety, it was enough to have the guarantee of time. Chances were that things weren’t going to end well for me, anyway: the best I could hope for was getting the disclosures out before I was caught.”

He said he did not leave his hotel room in Tsim Sha Tsui, where he broke his stories to reporters from the Guardian and The Washington Post, “for fear of giving a foreign spy the chance to sneak in and bug the place”.

He then moved to live with some asylum seekers for about two weeks before boarding a commercial flight Moscow with the help of WikiLeaks.

According to Snowden, he did not find out his passport had been revoked by the US State Department until he arrived in Moscow, which made it impossible for him to buy another ticket to get to Ecuador.

Snowden insisted in the book that he “wiped my four laptops completely clean and destroyed the cryptographic key, which meant that I could no longer access any of the documents even if compelled”.

In an interview with American broadcaster CBS on Monday, Snowden said his ultimate goal was to return to the US as long as he could get a fair trial. “But if I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison, the one bottom line demand that we have to agree to is that at least I get a fair trial,” he said.

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