What has Snowden shown us?

Edward Snowden has become a very well-travelled man in recent weeks. First a visit to Hong Kong, one of the most spectacular cities I have ever been too, followed by Moscow, full of right history and stunning architecture, and it looks like his travel plans include visiting the Caribbean jewel, socialist heartland and cultural rich Cuba, followed Ecuador, highly recommended by Lonely Planet. I am so jealous of this man.

In all seriousness, Edward Snowden has been on a remarkable journey and revealed some stunning things, and, in all truthfulness, some rather boring facts that are already common knowledge in the intelligence and security community. First we discovered that the NSA had been hacking into Facebook, Twitter, Apple customer details, among various other popular places on the web. All very unsurprising, all rather not worth kicking up a fuss about. If GCHQ was stupid enough to leave the world of email for example, unchecked, it would be not only incompetent, but dangerous to leave this part of internet communications unchecked. It is a very good way for terrorists and trouble makers to communicate, if we didn’t monitor internet communications it would be a massive security risk. Edward Snowdon was not really revealing anything with this information, to someone who knows anything about the world of signals intelligence, it is basic.

Then came the news that the NSA, under laws made by former President Bush and renewed under the Obama institution, had been bypassing court warrants to obtain information, that much less evidence has to be put forward to obtain permission to monitor certain individuals. It was also revealed that court warrants are not even required for citizens from outside the United States, an obvious risk to their human rights.



This is where Ed’s work got interesting.

This is of course a major concern, from a supposed liberal body, whose intelligence service exists to protect such democracy. There is an obvious clash between intelligence, security and liberty, and obtaining court warrants and providing substantial evidence is something that is supposed to be one of the foundations for ensuring people both inside the state in question, and outside, have their liberty intact. The United States’ Intelligence Community (there are 16 intelligence services in total, as opposed to 4 in the UK) does not have a good track record when respecting the rights of foreigners, given the amount of coups it has engineered against democratic regimes, as well as its assassinations and high privilege with respect to accountability within Washington. What Snowden revealed is a worry, if the US does not need a court warrant to snoop on you, then effectively it can monitor and repress anyone that poses a threat not just to security, put to the politics and ideology of the ruling elite. With respect to democracy and liberty of course that is a worry, Snowden was right to reveal this (although he should have focused more on this part of the story).

Then came the news that the UK had taken advantage by such means, and that we spy on internet users too. It was also revealed that the USA had tapped into communications in the EU, both within EU institutions and in the embassies of member states in the US. We also learned that They had spied on Chinese computers. Again, to anyone who knows anything about intelligence would have been thoroughly underwhelmed by the news. The UK and USA, along with Canada, New Zealand and Australia form ECHELON, a global signals intelligence network where the most sensitive areas of intelligence are shared with allies, and all member states undertake shared security operations. It is the best example of international trust and cooperation. Of course we take advantage of the information, that is obvious, is is somewhat curious it made the headlines in such a big way. GCHQ do not undertake such practices, but we do get information from such sources through our American friends, even if it is through questionable means.


Then onto the Spying at the EU, another thing we already knew. International organisations tend to be centres of espionage, governments are only too keen to find out what their partners are planning to bring up at meetings and what their negotiating stance will be. Whilst there may be no security risk at such organisations, there is the issue of economic intelligence, more common today than ever, and the US will keen to spy on major European culprits such as France, and gain secrets themselves on countries such as industrial titan Germany. This was not surprising in itself, there is always a level of spying between allies, (the only exception to the rule is the UK-US relationship) but it was a bit worrying that the degree of espionage is so high. It does show distrust between the US and Germany, among others. Snowdon revealed that the US only considers the Germans a “tier 3” ally, 2 steps below the grading for all the members of ECHELON. This will bother Merkel and co, they are supposed to be on as good terms with the whole of the EU as with us, obviously that is not the case, and there was no reason for it to be. With the infamous case of Curveball, an Iraqi who fed the Germans disinformation regarding Saddam’s WMD program (which was then used by the US at the UN to justify war) There was always resentment from the Yanks for not letting the CIA interview Curveball, and for holding back information (incidentally for fear of


Whether or not that is moral is not really the issue. It is not going to change the world, it has only embarrassed the NSA, but it does show that the USA still lives in a realist bubble where it sees it world hegemony threatened, and has limited trust for certain allies. What Snowden has done is reveal a lot of unimportant information, but some very vital parts that we must remember – warrants, legal checks and privacy protections must not be removed. But Snowden should remember that the record of the countries he is seeking refuge in with regards to intelligence is poor, to put it mildly. The US should not feel ashamed of spying on China, the Chinese spy on the Americans to an unimaginable degree, and they do pose a threat to liberal democracy. Russia’s KGB-esc intelligence services continue to supress opposition with spying. These countries still commit much worse atrocities than the prism system in the field of intelligence. Bear in mind as well that businesses will sell private consumer data, the type the NSA has been accessing, purely to make money off advertising

We should remember the very fine line between intelligence, security and democracy, and make sure we stay on the right side of it.



  1. Excellent article!

    You are right we all knew that surveillance was going on for some time. But the huge dragnet operation and especially the storage of data, which can be used for any blackmail, was news to many of us.

    William Binney and T.A Drake, both whistleblowers, who tried to complain within the system, suffered, and it seems nothing was done to change the systematic spying operations on individuals and the storing of information.

    Snowden had stickers on his computer supporting EFF who were suing NSA. I think they actually won in a secret court, but nothing can be published. Binney said that what NSA is doing since 9/11 is worse than Stasi, KGB or Gestapo, which makes me listen up. There are great interviews with both men on the internet.

    I think Snowden might have worked for NSA in Hawaii in order to expose everything. Call him naive, but he felt passionately about the individual’s right to privacy and was against the warrantless spying which in most cases didn’t even get the right results. Congress is finally going to ask questions about it.

    I am anxious that he is now in the wrong hands (Wikileaks and dodgy countries) and might have said more than necessary. I wish him luck. It takes a mad man or a hero to expose those things and maybe he is both.


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