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Edward Snowden and US-China Relations

Jun 25 , 2013

China and the United States have been at odds ever since the Obama administration accused the Chinese government of hacking government and business computers from secret locations inside China. But Edward Snowden, the ex CIA and NSA employee who fled the United States after leaking documents to the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers, revealed in an interview that the United States has been hacking into Chinese government and business computers as well.  There is no reason to doubt the veracity of Mr. Snowden’s claim, for he had access to the NSA’s PRISM program’s data and the Obama administration has admitted that what he revealed regarding the PRISM program is accurate.

Mr. Snowden fled the heavy hand and long reach of the US judicial system–and the risk of being locked away in some dark corner for years–for the relative safety of Hong Kong, a country which has a tradition of protecting free-thinking individuals.  But then he had second thoughts where he should go for safety, because extradition from Hong Kong could be possible. With the help of persons working for WikiLeaks, Snowden was spirited away to Russia on Aeroflot, where the world’s media is waiting with baited breath to know where Edward Snowden will head next.  Will it be Ecuador?  Will it be Iceland?  Will it be Venezuela?  All of these are countries have no extradition treaty with the USA, even though Ecuador did have one at one time.  Now Snowden has requested asylum there.  The Ecuadorian foreign minister, travelling in Vietnam, said Ecuador is considering his request.  All of this reads like a James Bond novel.

It is a bit of an irony that Ecuador—in the name of protecting the right of Edward Snowden to speak freely regarding the secrets of the USA spy apparatus–might provide asylum when Ecuador itself does not allow press speech.  Ecuador’s congress on June 14 approved a law which creates a new state-run organization that has the power to levy financial penalties and other sanctions on newspapers which disseminate news considered too violent or which the government panel says defames another person—they call such reporting “public lynching”.  This is chilling indeed as the newspapers would back away from reporting on, for example, official corruption. Ecuador’s president last year pressed a suit alleging defamation against himself through the courts who handed down a three year prison sentence and a $40 million fine on the publisher of the country’s largest newspaper, La Hora.  He fled to Panama who granted him asylum.  International pressure allowed the publisher to eventually return.  Now going the in other direction, we have Edward Snowden seeking asylum in Ecuador.

Ecuador’s goal is obviously to embarrass and antagonize the United States whom they and Venezuela call an “Empire”.  But remember that Ecuador itself was embarrassed when Ecuador’s other famous political refugee, Julian Assange, published leaked diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks in which the United States said that the police in Ecuador were corrupt.  It does not require an official cable to know that the police and lots of other functionaries in Ecuador take bribes—anyone who has been there or lives there know that.  Still President Correa feigned offense and used the occasion to expel the US ambassador, who has since returned.

Regarding the overall issue at hand, what Mr. Snowden revealed is that the USA and China are looking with a close eye toward each other.  Yet, this need not increase tension between the two countries.  On the contrary, it presents an opportunity for China and the United States to improve communication and enhance understanding between the two peoples.  If you know what I am doing and I know what you are doing then we have nothing to hide.

Governments and businesses since antiquity have sought have to know what the other is thinking.  This is true even among friends.  For example, an employee of MI6 in England published a memoir two decades ago which was banned by the British government, although you could buy it abroad.  He revealed that when France was seeking to join NATO, the British sent spies into NATO’s headquarters to read the French proposal.  He also revealed that when the telephones quit working in foreign embassies on British soil, MI6 sent in telephone repairmen who then planted bugs.  The French did the same, albeit using different tactics.  Then helped the French company Airbus win contracts to build planes over Boeing, the American competitor, because they revealed Boeing’s proposal to Airbus.

The risk of losing business and government secrets is greater to the Chinese than the USA, because of the way the Internet works.  Google’s Gmail and Skype computers are located in the United States.  So is Amazon’s data-storage systems, which they call the “cloud”.  Yet all three companies have data centers around the world to improve the speed by which information is sent to their clients via the Internet—being closer to your customer makes their web site run faster by reducing what is called “latency”.  But to say that data located in a data center in, say, Brazil is safe from the prying eyes of the NSA is not correct.  The database in Brazil merely replicates what is in California—it does not keep a separate copy of data for people living and working abroad.  Data flowing across the Internet takes quickest possible route thus crossing the boundaries of all nations.  So the NSA can listen in when someone makes a Skype phone call between, say, Argentina and Germany.  The average user has no knowledge of this.  Since the NSA PRISM program has cast a wide net, it vacuums up everything which flows across the wire.  This is less of a problem for governments than business, because governments use data encryption to protect transmissions.  Individuals and businesses do not use encryption much because Gmail, Hotmail, and Google Documents do not support it easily, although there are some difficult-to-use techniques for encrypting emails and documents using those systems.  Because encryption is awkward and takes time, Chinese companies can unwittingly hand over their business plan to the Americans as they make sales and do business abroad.  So the Chinese bid to build, for example, a bridge can be undercut by an American company who can offer up a lower price.  No one has revealed that there is such cooperation between the US government and US businesses, but the pressure to do that in times of economic distress will increase.

Recognizing these risks and limits on communications, the Chinese and Americans can work together to shore up defenses of their most valuable information.  Also since the USA has the ability to listen in on communications around the world—as we all know now–the USA can warn the Chinese when their citizens are threatened by international terrorist organizations as they have done for the British and Germans.  Certainly as the Chinese economy grows and expands, they will go abroad to look for oil and mineral resources like copper and iron, so they are going to be increasingly working with people, like radical followers of Islam, who might be hostile to their presence.  The USA can help protect the Chinese from terrorist attack and other threats.

Let us hope that the US Congress pressures the United States security apparatus to reveal the inner workings of the NSA PRISM and other programs to the public.  Certainly the pressure to do so is increasing as Google, Facebook, and other businesses do not want their sales to suffer in light of these revelations made by Mr. Snowden.  These companies have been pressured by the Europeans regulators and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over the issue of privacy.  Because of that, Facebook has given its users more tools to protect their private data, but this trust between the company and its users has been shattered by revelations that the NSA is reading your Facebook page.  This trust can only be restored when the United States reveals the extent of their surveillance programs.  Making this information public will relax tension with the Chinese as they too would like to know which of their individuals and companies are at risk from the prying eyes of the NSA.

It might be the case, depending on what else he has to say, that Congress need not work themselves to reveal all these hidden details.  Edward Snowden might do that himself, depending on how much he knows and how much he wants to divulge. 

That Snowden has left Hong Kong is certainly a relief to China who no longer has to consider what to do with the thorny issue over whether to hand him over to the Americans. And Ecuador is eager to embrace Snowden, so they can use him to jab the evil empire in the eye.

Walker Rowe is Publisher at Southern Pacific Review. He lives in Santiago, Chile.

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