Reflections on the PRISM saga

Updated: 2013-06-22 08:17

By Bob Lee (HK Edition)

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Reflections on the PRISM saga

Edward Snowden, who shot to overnight fame by leaking large troves of highly classified intelligence in Hong Kong, is not only the talk of the town. Actually, the whole world's attention is turning to this tiny corner of the Middle Kingdom.

As the CIA, FBI and the like keep themselves busy by investigating further to ensure that no other potential leakers will flash out and do the same harm, a lot of questions have been raised by the press and the public at large: How a small potato like Snowden is able to ransack troves of top secret information by a thumb drive? And why this former CIA employee decided to divulge highly classified data in Hong Kong, which is an SAR of the People's Republic of China? Is the timing coincidence or delicately calculated - just days after President Xi and US President Obama's intimate get-together? Why didn't he choose to land in Iceland directly for political asylum? Will he leak more top secrets to the Chinese intelligence apparatus? Will China hastily agree to Snowden's extradition for the sake of salvaging relations with the US if he is proved a high-value fugitive?

With this intriguing drama continuing to unfold, the relevant authorities among the US, the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong will surely work against the clock and behind the scenes to settle this case in one another's favors. For the rest of us, while we tittle-tattle over the movie-like spy story, it's perhaps worth thinking deeply about this cyber spying case.

Firstly, Snowden's disclosures to the Guardian, the Washington Post, and later the South China Morning Post, shed a rare light on the dark corner of the US government's powerful and seemingly boundless data-gathering and storage programs peeping at millions of people, which is seemingly at odds with civil liberty and human rights; despite Obama defending the legality of the National Security Agency (NSA), as well as their importance "in detecting and disrupting terror plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well"; despite Snowden being labeled a "traitor", by former vice-president Dick Cheney, who would potentially face charges ranging from theft of government property to espionage. All this doesn't change the undeniable fact that ordinary citizens' phones are routinely tapped, and their e-mails censored. The US government's misdeeds demonstrate the widening gulf between its democratic ideals and a stern reality, a blurry line between safeguarding civil liberty and a vague definition of national security.

At the center of the storm is PRISM, the surveillance program, which reportedly has the capacity to mine the telecommunication records of not only US citizens, but non-Americans alike. So, fair enough, it is not just US citizens who deserve to know more about the truth. President Obama owns the whole world a full explanation over Uncle Sam's peeping habit.

In fact, Snowden's actions have already engendered sympathy at home. Some activists in the US - far right or left, have launched online fund-raising events on Facebook for him. Snowden also has local fans here in Hong Kong; politicians and lawmakers across the political spectrum have shown rare united support for the whistleblower.

Second, the US has long accused China of monitoring its computer networks for sensitive intelligence programs and hacking to harvest high-tech info and commercial data on a broad scale, so that Chinese companies can gain a competitive edge.

Frankly, for ages, the world has known an open secret that, the US has long been the biggest i-spy; its capability and the sophistication of cyberhacking is well above others around the globe, yet it is ok for most of us. What puzzles us is the US government's hypocrisy in its unrelentingly attack on the Chinese side for so-called State-sponsored cybersnooping, while quietly conducting a large-scale spying campaign itself. Isn't it a typical case of the old Chinese saying: "the villain bringing a suit against his victims"? The answer is obviously yes.

Instead of reflecting on its wrongdoing, the US side fascinatingly hinted that Snowden is a mole spying for China. Such accusation is sheer nonsense not worth refuting. Even Snowden calls it a "predictable smear", "intended to distract from the issue of the US government's misconduct". He mockingly wrote in a live Q&A web chat with the Guardian newspaper, that if he was a Chinese spy, "I would be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now".

Finally, Snowden's case also serves as delightful fodder for Western media who usually lavish accusatory remarks on China's method of handling dissidents, but can now turn the tables by referring to Snowden, Manning and other whistleblowers as "American dissidents". If the US is unable to handle a growing number of Snowden-like dissidents, and get its house in order, these sagas wouldn't help promote the US's self-assured cause of universal values.

The author is a staff writer.

(HK Edition 06/22/2013 page6)