Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has not done a deal with the Russian state security agency to acquire political asylum, the whistleblower revealed in a television version of a BBC interview.
The programme, though failing to reveal anything new about surveillance, provided some interesting insights.
During a 30-minute episode of Panorama that aired on Monday, he said that GCHQ had the capability to hack smartphones (using the “Smurf” toolset) as well as providing general background on the surveillance and Western state-sponsored hacking, as previously reported.
Snowden firmly denied doing a deal with the FSB (the Russian state security agency) in exchange for asylum in Moscow. “I burned my life to the ground to work against surveillance,” said Snowden. Why would I suddenly turn around, because I’m in a different geographical location, and say 'I’m all about surveillance ... that’s what I’d like to do from now on'.”
He admitted FSB officers had quizzed him while he was stuck in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport but denied handing over intelligence. “Everything I had is in the hands of journalists,” Snowden said.
The programme, Edward Snowden: Spies and the Law, which featured the first Snowden interview on British TV, was designed to inform debate on upcoming plans to modernise the UK’s surveillance laws (Investigatory Powers Act).
The general subject matter is well known to El Reg readers, if not the general public. The programme does, however, provide some new perspectives into Snowden the exile.
Snowden, who has been charged in his absence with offences against the Espionage Act, said would be prepared to do a plea-bargain with the US authorities. “I’ve volunteered to go to prison many times,” he said. “What I won’t do is serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.”
“So far, they’ve said they’ve won’t torture me, which is a start ... but we haven’t got much further than that," he added.
Former NSA chief Michael Hayden has expressed the opinion that Snowden would die in Moscow. Snowden said his one regret was not coming forward earlier. “The longer you wait with programmes like this the more deeply entrenched they become,” Snowden told reporter Peter Taylor. “I have paid a price but I feel comfortable with the decisions I’ve made.”
Panorama only featured excerpts from a much longer Snowden interview, more background on which was covered during BBC Radio4’s flagship Today show on Tuesday morning.
Reporter Peter Taylor related how the interview was set up via encrypted apps through intermediaries. Taylor described Snowden as driven and self-contained.
Asking how he was supporting himself financially, Snowden said he went into exile with cash (”I made an extraordinary amount of money for someone of my qualifications before I left”) but didn’t say how much because “it would probably violate some customs’ declaration”.
As a self-professed champion of freedom and civil liberties, Snowden was asked, how did he square accepting the hospitality of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country with a poor record on press freedoms and human rights? Snowden didn’t really answer that except to respond pragmatically that he’d applied for asylum in 21 countries and that none had got back to him.
“The best thing about being a marked man is that you don’t have to think about tomorrow. You live for today,” Snowden concluded.
Facebook relies on tips, not algorithms, to root out terrorists
During Panorama a Facebook representative was grilled about issues surrounding a post by the killer of British Army soldier, Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was hacked to death on the streets outside barracks in London in May 2013. After Rigby’s murder it emerged that Michael Adebowale had sent a message through Facebook months earlier to a foreign jihadist talking about his desire to kill a soldier with a knife.
Simon Milner, UK and Ireland policy director at Facebook, expressed horror at the vicious murder of Rigby and sympathy for the authorities but said the social network relied on reports from users and tip-offs to keep terrorist activity and content off Facebook.
He declined to go into detail on the Rigby case but said that Facebook had taken measures to become a “hostile to terrorists” over the last three years.
“Facebook doesn’t track terrorist content. It doesn’t monitor people's message ... there is no algorithm that finds terrorist content,” Milner added.
Snowden’s explanation of Blighty’s particular role in the Five Eyes’ government spying alliance is also worth repeating:
GCHQ is, for almost all intents and purposes, a subsidiary of the NSA ... it provides technology and tasking for what they should go after ... GCHQ provides access to communications that are collected in the UK ®