NSA whistleblower Snowden a 'hero' - but not in the UK?

NSA and GCHQ whistleblower Edward Snowden and the film on his leaks, Citizenfour, were celebrated at an event in London last week, but questions remain whether the UK really got the message on privacy and government surveillance.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden warns of iPhone spyware
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden warns of iPhone spyware

Snowden has been celebrated and slated in equal measure since his leaks on NSA and GCHQ surveillance programmes, first through The Guardian, in April 2013, but he won widespread praise at an F-Secure privacy party, hosted at the 44CON conference in London, last week.

The event was hosted in part to celebrate Snowden and in part Citizenfour, the film produced and directed by Laura Poitras and with cameos from Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. The firm, which was released in October last year, has since won a Bafta and an Oscar.

Lumunaries in attendance included F-Secure chief research officer (CRO) Mikko Hypponen, Big Brother Watch director Emma Carr as well as those closely involved with the making of the film and the release of the leaks. The Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill was one of the first to meet Snowden in Hong Kong and reported on his leaks, especially in relation to the activities of GCHQ, while privacy activist Michael Harris is director of Britdoc, the production company which backed the film.

F-Secure CEO Christian Fredrikson and Allen Scott, managing director of F-Secure in the UK, opened the presentation by saying they were ‘enthralled' about the success of the film, with Scott adding that it "had changed our view of the way we look at data and privacy.”

“Whatever your opinion of him is, if he's a villain or a hero, you've got to admit that what he did was extremely brave. Think about yourself, would you be able to do same?” asked Fredrikson, adding that this was testament that he, “obviously believes very strongly in what he does.”

MacAskill was one of the first reporters to interview Snowden on the disclosures and though admitting that there were times when he thought the former NSA contractor was a “fanatic, a crackpot” – especially when placing blanket over his head when on a telephone call – he said he was a ‘hero' and ‘principled' in what he did.

“For him, this was a constitutional issue,” said the reporter, adding that the “next task for me is to get Snowden out of Russia and preferably to somewhere in western Europe. That's what we should be working for.”

MacAskill, who dealt with some 60,000 documents from Snowden, added that his dealings with the GCHQ – the ire of much of Snowden's leaks – were amicable enough, with them simply “ordinary civil servants that don't think anything wrong with what they're doing, the intrusions and the invasion of privacy.” They've “no intention” of giving up the tools, he said.

“But there are reasons to be optimistic, there's going to be a debate after the election on the existing legislation which are ambiguous, unintelligible and will be rewritten.” He said Oliver Stone's portrayal of Snowden, in the Christmas movie 'Snowden', would stir the debate once more, and of the fugitive's long-term occupancy.

However, Harris said that while there has been much change post-Snowden around the globe, this is not the case in the UK.

“Two years later after Snowden has disclosed the revelations around the NSA and GCHQ surveillance and we've had an enormous global debate, we've had legislation passed in places like Austria and Brazil, and seen a fundamental shift in the public attitude, from a kind of interest in privacy to actually privacy being one of the human rights people are most talking about.”

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