Edward Snowden's 40 days in a Russian airport – by the woman who helped him escape

Sarah Harrison on Ed's exile, Assange’s future – and the privacy fight ahead

Exile and Miranda rights

In August 2013, British police made it clear that Harrison would not be receiving a warm welcome in her home country when they arrested David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow Airport under the 2000 Terrorism Act. Miranda had his personal belongings seized, and was questioned for nine hours without a lawyer.

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Miranda was held under a clause in the legislation that allowed the police to detain anyone on the suspicion that they were aiding terrorism. Under the circumstances, Harrison was advised not to come back to the UK.

"The lawyers felt that, particularly after the Miranda case, I would be stopped as well and that there would be questions I would refuse to answer, which would leave me open to charges under the Terrorism Act," she explained.

With her home country off-limits, Harrison moved to Germany, where she joined a growing number of privacy campaigners, including US filmmaker Laura Poitras, who directed the Oscar-winning Citizenfour documentary about Snowden. Harrison was to remain in exile for nearly two years.

However, Miranda appealed the actions of the UK police in the UK courts. His detention and interrogation were ruled legal in 2014 but he appealed. This too was struck down in January of this year, but - crucially - the court ruled that police detaining journalists under the same powers was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“If journalists and their sources can have no expectation of confidentiality, they may decide against providing information on sensitive matters of public interest,” ruled Judge John Dyson, the most senior civil judge in England and Wales.

"This was great news for me personally, but also I think for the concept of press freedom within the UK," Harrison said. "The legal team felt it would open a whole can of worms if they were to stop me. We thought it was worth a try and we were correct thankfully."

Old friends and new causes

Harrison made a short visit to the UK before returning to Germany to see friends and family, and has since returned for a longer visit. Among those she caught up with was her boss and friend Julian Assange.

"I was sad when I came back [that] I got to see Julian in the same room I had left him in three years before," the WikiLeaks journalist said.

"Mentally he's on good form, but physically - he doesn't complain about it but as a friend that knows him so well I can see he's physically down. It's tough in there – he hasn't seen the sun, he has a problem with his shoulder and can't get the medical care in there that he actually needs but he doesn't complain about it at all."

Assange is working on the next tranche of publications coming up from WikiLeaks, with more files to be shared, said Harrison. His own legal case is also progressing and Assange is hoping for a ruling soon on Sweden's issuance of an arrest warrant for his questioning over claims of sexual offences.

Harrison is still working for WikiLeaks but said that most of her time is now devoted to the Courage Foundation, an organization set up to provide legal assistance and support to whistleblowers. It currently has eight cases on its books, including that of Snowden, former United States Army soldier Chelsea Manning, and Trident whistleblower William McNeilly and is pressing European governments to change the laws on people reporting malfeasance.

The long road ahead

Ultimately the effects of the revelations that emanated from the Snowden archives haven't bought about any meaningful change in the policy of many governments towards the surveillance of their citizens.

France is "going mad," at the moment over such policies and the UK government's new IT laws are swinging in the wrong direction, she said. As an activist, she's hopeful, but the short term signs aren't good.

"Their illegal behavior was seen and what is their reaction? To legalize it," Harrison said. "In the foreseeable future I don't see governments changing their attitudes at all. But on the positive side there's a lot more understanding in the public that this is going on and you are seeing a lot of action from corporations who understand their customer base is actually concerned about this."

She cited the case of the US government versus Apple in the FBI's ultimately failed fight to force Cook & Co to make it easy for the Feds to break iPhone security. Apple stood firm to legal threats and the FBI was forced to back down - for now.

Snowden's work was also important in making certain groups realise quite how tightly they were being monitored. Journalists are getting wiser to this, she said, and lawyers too are becoming aware that governments may be snooping on their communications with their clients. ®

* At the time of publication, the film was slated to be released on September 16 in the US, and 15 October in the UK

** See The Register's "Play the Snowden flights boardgame: Avoid going directly to Jail".

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