Oh how Edward Snowden, a 30 year old, relatively low-level defense contractor, has angered and turned the world upside down for the United States authorities since May 20 when he left the country for Hong Kong. Since then, he has been releasing masses of classified information obtained while working as a contractor for the NSA (National Security Agency).
From the United States authorities’ perspective he is not “a legitimate whistleblower” who has released information the public should have. Rather, he is considered a “traitor” to his country who should be arrested, tried and punished for his “treason”.
He is, essentially, claiming to reveal a lot of NSA information he came to know about in his employment to do with technological monitoring of United States citizens and a great many people from other countries as well.
I do not wish to go much here into the details of what Edward Snowden has released, or what should or should not be done about him in right now, but would like to focus more particularly on some potentially useful possibilities that could be opened up for productive inter-state dialogue.
Although expressing displeasure at having their servers hacked into by the United States as claimed by Snowden, the Chinese have made some potentially productive comments. For the last few years they have been on the receiving end of a vigorous United States campaign accusing them of hacking into its internet servers and of installing, in the West, fibre-optic data-transmission cables embedded with technological devices to enable the Chinese to monitor data traffic.
Now Snowden has come out with claims that the United States has lifted millions of text messages from Chinese phone company databases, and hacked into one of its major internet hubs.
According to a BBC report, the Chinese government news agency Xinhua commented that now it was the US that had turned out to be the “biggest villain in our age” when it came to data hacking.
Having made a point they wanted to make, the Chinese went on to make one of the most helpful and forward-looking contributions to have emerged so far from the Snowden affair: Xinhua commented on how the Snowden developments provided
support for China’s position on cybersecurity…. Both the United States and China, together with many other countries, are victims of hacking. For the uncharted waters of the Internet age, these countries should sit down and talk through their suspicions.
And then, most usefully, Xinhua added:
With good intentions, they can even work for the establishment of certain rules that help define and regulate Internet activities and mechanisms that can work out their differences when frictions do arise.
Interestingly, the Chinese were here in effect echoing a comment made a few weeks earlier by the United States Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel in a context where he was reiterating United States’ allegations about Chinese hacking United States’ servers. Mr Hagel stressed how:
Cyber threats are real, they’re terribly dangerous ….They’re probably as insidious and real a threat (as there is) to the United States, as well as China, by the way, and every nation.
He then went on to say, in a similar vein to the Xinhua statement just quoted, that rules were needed where:
“That’s not a unique threat to the United States, (it affects) everybody, so we’ve got to find ways here … working with the Chinese, working with everybody, (to develop) rules of the road, some international understandings, some responsibility that governments have to take…” .
So the situation exists where it is in the clear, publicly-expressed interest of both of these major powers – along with other interested nations – that they rise above inter-national posturing and bickering, and start working out some common solutions to common problems. Strong moves in this direction might indeed be the very best way to defuse – otherwise potentially endless and unproductive – recriminations and counter-recriminations around the Snowden claims.
Especially with the internet, and now social media, technological innovation has thrown up wonderful new possibilities, as well as some manifest problems. Such issues need a much better airing to clarify better frameworks in which the benefits of these new innovations can be (safely) shared.
One has to wonder, however, will the two big powers again find themselves talking past each other? Will anger at what a relatively low-level technician did, and going after him, get in the way of dealing constructively with substantive issues affecting virtually everyone on the planet?
It is in the interests of the United States and China, and of the rest of the world, that the two nations communicate well together. Other nations also need to be involved in global conversations about the future of the Internet.
In the vein of Village-Connections proposals in other blogs I would like to think that, instead of remaining a spectator of things getting worse, a New Zealand Government that wanted to be constructive could take a few, not too difficult or even expensive, steps.
It could begin to take a lead by simply checking out with both the United States and China about their thoughts on the problems and on finding solutions for them, particularly given that the need for solutions has been flagged by both sides at high levels. Work might then begin on developing shared agendas for discussion. Or if one or both do not feel ready just yet, then at least New Zealand might keep in touch with them so as to be available to help as/when they do feel ready. Meanwhile also, New Zealand could check out with other international parties as to whether they might like to begin discussions on such matters.
As well as engaging in direct consultations with the respective governments in both capitals, perhaps conversations might also be opened up with relevant United States, Chinese and other interested embassy staffs in Wellington? Might New Zealand officials be brought in to assist when suitable, as well as other New Zealanders with relevant IT and academic backgrounds? Could relevant conversations be pursued both informally and in more structured seminars and conferences, buttressed by good research? Could an institution like Wellington’s Victoria University sometimes provide academic backing and, at times, also physical amenities?
By developing as a hub for these kinds of discussions, Wellington might be increasingly able to develop into a locally and globally well networked diplomatic village, and to function increasingly like a kind of information age Geneva for the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, in a New Zealand increasingly seen as an information-age “Switzerland of the Southern Hemisphere”.
Your comments are most welcome
Submitted on 2013/07/02 at 11:11am
The suggestion in the footnote above about offering Edward Snowden safe residence in New Zealand may be shaping up as the most comfortable option for all concerned now that the possibility of Edward Snowden living on in Russia is being discussed in Russia itself.
(See news item, “Putin to Snowden: Stop leaking if you want to stay”
Tuesday Jul 2, 2013 **
Not only would the United States now be best advised in terms of its own interests to seriously countenance the New Zealand option, but Snowden’s long-term residence in Russia itself would constitute an on-going distraction and irritant in relations between it and the United States while they are trying to develop cooperation on issues like the peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.
In the light of these emerging new circumstances, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key could make useful contact with the United States and Russia to check out if, after all, they might now prefer that Mr Snowden be offered safe residence in New Zealand.
Submitted on 2013/08/08 at 3:00am
An update & comment on Edward Snowden, 7 August:
I see that today Edward Snowden has registered as a Russian resident, having a week ago been granted a year’s asylum in Russia.
The United States has of course been pressing Russia for him to be handed over, which it shows no signs of doing.
As it looks more and more like Mr Snowden will be able to settle in Russia for the longer term, the United States will become increasingly uncomfortable about him being there with his skills and knowledge.
Meanwhile, back in the United States President Obama is, as a result of pressures created ultimately by Mr Snowden’s revelations, agreeing to countenance proposals from congressmen for changes in the way the NSA does things. [Obama ‘open to NSA surveillance reform’ at meeting with lawmakers http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/01/barack-obama-congress-nsa-reform-meeting
In other words, Edward Snowden is beginning to be seen as drawing attention to situations that that needed to be remedied.
As these situations in Russia and the United States respectively continue to unfold, the United States might mellow and find itself feeling much more comfortable with the idea of his living in a quiet, friendly place like New Zealand.
It would be useful for the New Zealand government to at least keep in touch with the United States about the possibility of him being given residency here.