Hong Kong seems that little bit emptier now Edward Snowden has suddenly upped and left the city. The dashing, trendy, cyber-hero, whistleblower-traitor-fiend flew into the sunset yesterday on Aeroflot, apparently en route for Ecuador via either Cuba or Venezuela via Moscow. (Given Ed’s image problems back home as a Chinese red Commie turncoat, I would probably skip Cuba, still viewed by many Americans as a Soviet-backed menace to hemispheric freedom.) Plucky little Ecuador is, of course, the liberty-loving nation in whose London embassy sits Julian Assange, who released tons of stunningly uninteresting classified data passed on by US soldier Bradley Manning, the least glamorous and so far only captured member of the Three State-Secret-Spilling Musketeers of our era. WikiLeaks, now Ed’s advisor and guardian, is in danger of officially replacing Greenpeace as the world’s most insufferably self-righteous and self-important NGO.
The US government is miffed that Hong Kong dragged its feet over its request to have Ed arrested with a view to extradition, thus allowing him time to split. This implies that the US authorities submitted paperwork to Hong Kong that was no less adequate than in the many past successful cases of HK-US extradition. The alternative explanation, implied by the Hong Kong government, is that US officials goofed up with the legal documentation. Shouldn’t be hard to prove which. Either way, the Big Lychee and Beijing are now breathing a sigh of relief. In an uncharacteristic display of wit, the Hong Kong government also mentions in its statement that it is still waiting for Washington to respond to Ed’s charges that US security services hacked (presumably illegally) into our local Internet infrastructure.
It is unfair that the US ends up in the role of villain. Ed’s revelations simply confirm that the National Security Agency and its partners conduct wide-scale traffic analysis on the millions of bits and pieces flowing around the Internet in the hope of detecting patterns that could help identify planned terrorist attacks. China’s spy agencies, meanwhile, target individual corporate and public networks, probably in order to steal specific commercial and strategic information and maybe even to acquire the capacity to disrupt vital Western services and systems. The only similarity is that both powers rely on young geeks to do the work.
But it is hard to sympathize for an American leadership that seems determined to make the country look bad in the eyes of the world by refusing to admit that it might be infringing the principles it declares everyone else should follow.
Part of the problem is that the US has nurtured a bloated intelligence and security industry. Attempting to scoop up records of every email, every Facebook posting and every data transfer on the planet is ridiculous, as is making people take their shoes off every time they fly, along with dozens of other over-the-top measures in the ‘war on terror’. Maybe a few percent of this activity is worthwhile, but for the most part this whole thing has become a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. Needless to say, this yields huge profits for security contractors and fat pensions for public-sector labour – and no doubt contributions flow into lawmakers’ and parties’ election campaigns to keep it that way.
This is related to another American taxpayer-funded industry that has gone out of control, namely the penal system. One of the reasons people are cheering Ed on as the Feds chase him round the globe is that they know the harshness of the justice he will face if caught. The length of possible prison sentences and the severe conditions of incarceration that await Ed are in line with a whole array of excessive Federal and state penalties that go back to the ‘war on drugs’. Thanks to an absurd incarceration rate, billions of US taxpayers’ dollars are now poured down the drain while prison construction/supplies/services companies – and unionized prison guards – laugh all the way to the bank, stopping of course to donate to tough-on-crime politicians’ campaign funds.
In short, a country with a good-albeit-not-perfect claim to the moral high ground is inviting international ridicule (not least by taking everything way too seriously), while a kleptocratic dictatorship like China or a flea-size authoritarian banana-producer like Ecuador come out looking halfway cool. It’s a funny old world.