Edward Snowden: The NSA whistleblower unmasks

The whistleblower who leaked Top Secret documents to the <em>Guardian</em> about NSA domestic spying practices has revealed himself to be 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee.

In an absolutely stunning Guardian profile, Edward Snowden describes how he leaked the documents to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald from a Hong Kong hotel room, padding the door and keeping a hood over his head, and covering his computer's webcam, to protect himself while he made the first leak of a "Top Secret" classified document since the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in what represents one of the most serious leaks in US history and what may come to be one of the defining moments of Obama's Presidency. 

"I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building," he told the Guardian.

Snowden says that he chose Hong Kong, a semi-autonomously governed region of China, because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, but also, the Guardian reports, because he believed it both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

This story comes just hours after the former director of the NSA under George W. Bush told the Guardian that surveillance has “expanded” under Obama's administration.

Obama, is en route – ironically – back to Washington from meeting the new Chinese President Xi Jinping in California, where he was scheduled to complain about Chinese cyber-hacking of American secrets. It is not known whether they mentioned the NSA surveillance scandal in their conversation – nor even whether the White House or the US security forces had any idea where the Guardian's leaks were coming from.

At time of press, the President has not yet responded to the identification of Snowden, though he did say yesterday that he “welcomes a debate” on national security – a statement it can only be imagined was given through gritted teeth, especially as Rand Paul, the libertarian Senator, said yesterday that he was considering leading a class action law suit against the government. This, it is fair to say, is not going to be a debate that the President relishes.

Before Snowden revealed his identity, the Department of Justice had said that it will seek to prosecute the perpetrators of leaks of American secrets, though Attorney General Eric Holder also said that no journalist would be prosecuted “for doing his or her job”.

Update: this piece was corrected at 9:39 PM to read "it is not known whether they mentioned the NSA surveillance" instead of the earlier, incorrect spelling of "NRA".

Edward Snowden. Photograph: The Guardian via Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.