The Edward Snowden Affair: A View from Siberia

When the Edward Snowden story first broke, I couldn’t exactly see what all the fuss was about. Knowing that all Russian internet activity and telecommunications are monitored closely by the FSB, as well as half a dozen other intelligence agencies, and have been since 2000, it came as no surprise that Western countries were up to the same tricks. The first difference I could see between the Russian and US monitoring systems was that while the Americans had chosen to call theirs PRISM, which has a bit of a ring to it, the Russian system, SORM, sounds as if something got lost in translation when the post-Soviet committee of naming things was discussing the matter with the post-Soviet committee for authorising those things which are about to be named. I can’t guarantee those actual committees exist; however, knowing Russian bureaucracy as well as I do, I would hazard an educated guess that they do. The other major difference of course is that while SORM was designed to monitor internally, PRISM was designed to monitor the whole world. The torrent of leaks that have been revealed since The Guardian first published the story on 6th June are too many to mention, but what is important is that Snowden, ‘the most significant whistle blower of modern times’, soon found himself as America’s Public Enemy Number One.

It was only when Snowden touched down in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, after avoiding extradition from Hong Kong to the US on some apparent minor technicalities, that I began to take notice. It was impossible not to, what with the subsequent media circus speculating on where he would seek asylum and the further tension it caused in US-Russia relations, which were already strained over the Syrian Civil War. As the debate in the media wore on and it became increasingly likely that Snowden would seek asylum in Russia, it struck me that there were more than a few similarities between the ‘Snowden affair’ and the ‘Petrov affair’ almost sixty years earlier.

In 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a colonel in the KGB, famously defected to Australia, causing a similar public scandal. Like Snowden, Petrov had become increasingly disillusioned with his own government and leaked his homeland’s secrets while outside of his native country, successfully avoiding execution; however, regardless of the fact that he was ‘safe’, he spent the rest of his life in perpetual fear of assassination. It’s not difficult to imagine the remainder of Snowden’s life being the same. The main difference between the two affairs of course is that while Petrov defected at a time of ‘Cold War’, Snowden’s divorce from America came at a time of peace; although, with the glut of anti-Russian sentiments and Cold War references offered by high level US politicians since then, anyone could be forgiven for thinking the Cold War wasn’t actually over.

Another comparison that can be made with the two cases is the use of D-notices. While a D-notice was issued in the mid-fifties to protect the new identity and whereabouts of the Petrov family in Australia, it seems the most recent notice issued by the British Government in June was implemented solely to prevent the British people from becoming informed on the UK’s involvement in PRISM, sighting a risk to ‘national security’ as its reason. Created in 1912, the D-notice was originally intended as a means of preventing the press from publishing information that could be considered valuable by ‘enemies’, which begs the question: since when were the British people considered enemies of the state?

This I think was Snowden’s point entirely. In what world is it ethical for elected leaders to be able to spy on their own citizens? One could argue of course that he has simply jumped out of one frying pan and into a fire, considering Russia’s own use of SORM technology. However, Russia’s use of privacy infringement technology has always been well documented and publicised. For the most part, when someone in Russia picks up the phone, they’re aware of the fact it will probably be recorded in a Federal office somewhere. What they didn’t and couldn’t have known before Snowden was that while they were being monitored by their own government they were probably also being simultaneously recorded on the other side of the Atlantic. This is likely one of the main contributing factors that has since led to Snowden being granted temporary residency to remain in Russia: his efforts have significantly helped Russia move away from its Cold War image of spy central capital of the world. Who would have thought that nearly sixty years after Petrov’s flight we would see the whole affair played out once again, but in reverse?

When I was a boy growing up in Wales in the early eighties, watching the cartoon version of When the Wind Blows, it seemed we had a more clear definition of who the good guys and the bad guys were. It was Russia and the Soviet states that employed techniques such as full scale monitoring of the public, while we in the West were considered free from such oppressive measures. It seems three decades were all that were needed for this to completely turn on its head. These days CCTV cameras in Britain have been estimated to number somewhere between four and six million, with less than two per cent of those being operated by the British authorities. The vast majority are privately owned. The average Briton can expect to be filmed as many as three hundred times a day, although nobody can really be sure of this as ‘an exact number’ of CCTV cameras active in the UK is ‘impossible to determine’. On top of this, the British authorities also employ automated number plate recognition technology, mobile phone triangulation technology, as well as a whole host of monitoring devices, including the controversial compulsory electoral roll register. The problem with the latter of course if that an edited version can easily be bought, seemingly by anyone. Our personal information, that we are forced to submit involuntarily is then sold on by our local authorities to for ‘marketing purposes’. According to the civil liberties pressure group Big Brother Watch, ‘more than 2,700 different organisations’ purchased copies of the edited register between 2007 and 2012 alone.

However this is only the tip of the iceberg. Anyone travelling through London within the past few months would have noticed the immigration police standing at the entrance to several tube stations. Who would have thought, that in 2013, Britons would be stopped on their way to work and asked to show their passport and papers? Before I came to Russia, I had a pretty awful preconceived view of what my life would be like. I had visions of being stopped by the police every other day. By law I am required to carry my passport, migration card and city registration paper everywhere I go for the purposes of proving I have the legal right to be here, in case of an unannounced inspection. As a rule, I obey the law and carry my documents everywhere, but so far have never been asked to show them.

Just two days before Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, The Guardian broke the story that Britain’s intelligence agency GCHQ were as much if not more complicit in spying on ‘entirely innocent people’ than the Americans. It was revealed that by using a programme named Tempora, GCHQ have been able to intercept personal emails and mobile phone calls while at the same time monitoring people’s social networking and internet searches. Snowden even went as far to say that ‘(GCHQ) are worse than the US’. As well as being a complete shock to the rest of the world the revelations of Britain’s involvement also came as a complete surprise to Britain’s National Security Council. Which begs the question: if Britain’s own ministers were in ‘utter ignorance’ of Britain’s own use of some of the most sophisticated spying technology on the planet, then who exactly is in charge of it? And if indeed there are as many as ‘300 analysts from GCHQ’ as well as ‘250 from the NSA’ searching through people’s private information then who exactly are they working for? If parliament were themselves in the dark then who exactly is accountable for this huge store of data, and how do we, the ‘innocent people’ know that our own personal and private information won’t be used as some sort of future leverage against us?

Since being granted Russian residency at the end of July we have seen and heard little of Snowden, although a video of him has recently surfaced collecting a Sam Adams Award for ‘Integrity in Intelligence’; and although fellow whistle-blower Julian Assange said that Snowden was ‘safe in Russia’, the event itself wasn’t publicised and even afterwards one could only speculate as to where the ceremony was held. This is because, like Petrov before him, Snowden is now a marked man. Although he is able to walk freely in Russia it’s most likely that he will never again be able to return to his homeland without fear of execution, or to travel freely across the globe. Seemingly he can’t even collect an award on Russian soil without some form of secrecy. Although he himself considered it a moral obligation to reveal what he did, it’s impossible to say it whether his revelations will actually lead to any positive changes in the way information is collected and used. After Petrov’s defection it was almost forty years before the collapse of the USSR, and I don’t think there is anyone in the world who could say that his actions directly contributed to this in any way. And besides, spy technology is still commonly used in Russia. Similarly I think only the most naively optimistic would suggest that Snowden’s actions might prompt the rest of the intelligence world to act with ‘integrity’. Unfortunately, though we are all now more informed than we were just a few months ago, we’re still left with more questions than answers.

But one question – whether it’s now fair to compare the UK to the Soviet Union – has definitely been answered.