On Tuesday developments continued to pour in regarding the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal.
I. Booz Allen Fires Mr. Snowden
Last Wednesday, it was revealed that the government was collecting the phone records of at least a third of Americans. In the wake of the scandal, the government essentially admitted it was archiving the phone records of most U.S. citizens without any requirement of suspicion.
This tracking gives the government near-continuous access to the locations and contacts of citizens raising thorny privacy issues. In that regard it goes well beyond similar concerns raised regarding location tracking by private corporations such as Apple, Inc. (AAPL).
On Tuesday, Reuters reported on a not-so-unexpected development — top defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (Holding Corp. (BAH)) had fired Edward Snowden on Monday from his position “for violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.”
[Image Source: ACLU]
BAH has been battered by a 5 percent drop in its stock, as investors fear the association to Mr. Snowden could hurt the firm’s ability to get lucrative “big data” contracts from the government. An interesting tidbit in the company’s firing announcement was its assertion that Mr. Snowden had been making a salary of $122,000 USD, versus the $200,000 USD claimed in part of the Guardian’s reporting on the leak (the Guardian, a top British newspaper was the first to publish details on the spying programs and the first to out Mr. Snowden, as per his request).
II. Snowden Eyes Asylum
Mr. Snowden wasn’t exactly called in to a disciplinary hearing the day after he outed himself; he’s currently holed up at a hotel in Hong Kong, 5,500 miles away from his former workplace in Hawaii.
Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert suggested that Mr. Snowden should evacuate Hong Kong, pointing out that Hong Kong (Chinese) authorities had cooperated with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to extradite an anti-Gaddafi Islamist who was considered a security risk.
Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower may seek asylum. [Image Source: Reuters]
Mr. Snowden appears to be possibly prepared to try to follow that advice. He checked out of his luxury hotel room on Monday at noon, just scant hours after the Guardian published his identity. His whereabouts are currently unknown but Ewen MacAskill, a Guardian journalist, says he’s still in Hong Kong, commenting:
He didn’t have a plan. He thought out in great detail leaking the documents and then deciding rather than being anonymous, he’d go public. So he thought that out in great detail. But his plans after that have always been vague.
I’d imagine there’s now going to be a real battle between Washington and Beijing and civil rights groups as to his future. He’d like to seek asylum in a friendly country but I’m not sure if that’s possible or not.
Despite the fears of Human Rights Watch, the relationship between China and the U.S. has chilled over the last couple of years over concerns about intellectual property theft and North Korea, among other issues. Ultimately, China may look to flex its muscle as a world superpower by defying the U.S.
Another perennial adversary of the U.S. is also considering helping Mr. Snowden — Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov is quoted by Russian news agency Ria Novosti as saying, “If we receive such a request, we will consider it.”
Meanwhile, advocates in Iceland are seeking a less politically motivated offer of asylum for Mr. Snowden. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic MP who fought to protect Wikileaks during its time in the European island state, is lobbying Iceland’s immigration services and interior ministry to consider Mr. Snowden’s potential asylum bid. At the same time she encouraged Mr. Snowden to contact Icelandic authorities to advance the process.
III. Boehner: Snowden is a “Traitor” for Snitching on Secret Spying Program
Congress meanwhile is struggling towards trying to determine what to charge Mr. Snowden with. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) called him a whistleblower who “should be defended.”
But House Intelligence committee chair U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-New York) called Mr. Snowden a “defector” and Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) was even harsher, saying on Good Morning America, “He’s a traitor.”
The president outlined last week that these are important national security programs that help keep Americans safe and give us tools that help fight the terrorist threat we face. The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it’s a giant violation of the law.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), rumored to be considering a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, did not immediately condemn Mr. Snowden but was less enthusiastic about the leak than his father, Rep. Ron Paul.
I think it’s a complicated issue. I think when people choose civil disobedience they’re at their wit’s end and think there’s no other choice.
He notes, however, that he’s fighting the laws that allow the kind of privacy invasions that the leaks detailed.
Given the Republican support, charges for Mr. Snowden seem likely. President Obama’s administration has charged twice as many reported “whistleblowers” under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all other administrations combined. Despite that, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was close lipped regarding Mr. Snowden, remarking, “I won’t characterize him or his status. The Obama administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting whistleblowers.”
IV. Lawsuits, Protests Over Spying Kick Off
Even as Congress struggles over Mr. Snowden’s fate, there’s a corresponding conflict over the revealed programs themselves. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Tuesday filed suit [PDF] against the U.S. federal government in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The suit elegantly states:
In response to information published by the media, the government has acknowledged that it is relying on Section 215 to collect “metadata” about every phone call made or received by residents of the United States. The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book—with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where.
Today, Google Inc. (GOOG) and Facebook.com, Inc. (FB), perhaps the two biggest internet corporate powers, called on Congress to declassify details of the spying programs, which they say impact their customers.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he wouldn’t cave to spying requests like Verizon did. [Image Source: Christian Sinibaldi]
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was particularly vocal about his feelings about Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc.’s (LON:VOD) Verizon Wireless’s decision to comply with a blanket surveillance grab, commenting:
Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively.
Privacy advocates are unifying under the new campaign — Stop Watching Us (with the grin-worthy URL www.stopwatching.us). They’re encouraging U.S. citizens to sign a petition.
V. EU Pushes Obama for Action
Meanwhile, opposition over the spying continues to mount overseas. Given that the most ambitious warrantless seizures like PRISM primarily targeted foreigners, many European politicians voice anger at being left in the dark.
German chancellor Angela Merkel says she’ll press President Obama about the spying issue at a summit in Berlin, while Peter Schaar, Germany’s federal data protection commissioner, warned that it was not acceptable for the U.S. to be spying on German citizens “and [for] the level of protection [to be] lower than what is guaranteed for US citizens.”
EU officials dredged up a previous report from a Parliamentary advisory organization in Brusells, Belgium called [PDF] that had called the program a “grave risk” to data protection and citizen rights — even before the details of its full extent were revealed.
The EU politicians are outraged at the spying. [Image Source: AFP]
Italy’s privacy minister Antonello Soro comments, “[These seizures] would not be legal in Italy [and run] contrary to the principles of our legislation and would represent a very serious violation.”
Under pressure from his EU allies, President Obama — a long time supporter of increased surveillance both domestic and international — showed signs of being on the verge of caving. White House spokesperson Jay Carney, comments, “If [congressional] debate were to build to a consensus around changes [to the Patriot Act] the president would look at that. Although this is hardly the manner of discussion we hoped for, we would still like to have the debate.”
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