When it comes to Edward Snowden, two camps exist. Those who believe that he is a whistle-blower looking out for the best interests of American citizens and perhaps a little naïve, and those who believe that he is a Russian spy.
Three basic criteria exist in order to be considered a whistle-blower: materials must be proportionate to the allegations, exposure of illicit activities cannot be resolved by any other means, and public safety must be accounted for.
The number of documents Snowden compiled and stole from the NSA is estimated at 1.7 million. Out of that stockpile, only a small number focused on the domestic spying program. Did the release of the scope of U.S. surveillance program anger citizens in the U.S. and foreign leaders? Yes. Would the American people want to know that their email is monitored? Most likely; but the documents released were classified and the majority focused on how the U.S. conducts surveillance on other countries, not the American people. This type of spying is carried out all over the world by governments with the technological know-how and should not surprise anyone.
Based on the type and amount of documents, to whom Snowden gave them and how the information has been disseminated to the public, he does not pass the three criteria necessary for the whistle-blower test. But, the bulk of the documents he absconded with would be useful for a Russian espionage operation.
With all the attention on Russia invading Ukraine, Snowden had almost become yesterday’s news. Then he appeared on President Putin’s annual TV phone-in program on Russian state television. Putin typically uses this platform to answer questions by average Russian citizens, which Snowden is not. He is a high-profile American citizen, considered a traitor by the U.S., currently residing in Russia because Putin granted him asylum.
Snowden did not appear in studio with Russia’s leader. Instead, he pre-recorded a video clip that his attorney Anatoly Kucherena submitted to Putin’s camp, in which Snowden asked President Putin, “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?” He also asked if the Russian president believed that the effectiveness of these operations warranted surveillance of the entire society.
After a long and awkward re-phrasing of Snowden’s question, which Putin did not initially understand (according to the translation), his answer smacked of pretense and propaganda. Putin began his response by referring to Snowden as a former spy for America; “Mr. Snowden, you are a spy, a former agent. I used to work for an intelligence service. Let’s speak in a professional language.” In other words…from one spy to another, wink wink, I am going to tell the public what I want them to hear, which will make them believe that my policies are transparent and protect the public, as opposed to those of the U.S. government. The entire segment appeared to be a well-orchestrated Kremlin charade. Snowden has defended his participation, claiming that he asked a serious question of the Russian president because he believes in holding everyone accountable. This might be believable if Snowden had a permanent home to return to, but if he has hopes of extending his stay in Russia, legitimate criticism or questioning of Putin’s leadership methods is not the way to go.
Putin insisted that Russia does not have a mass surveillance plan, because it does not have the technology; and, according to Russian law, it is not permissible. He noted, though, that Russia uses some surveillance such as monitoring terrorists who communicate through email, just not at the level of the U.S.
Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte website (Russian Facebook) would probably disagree. In December 2013, the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, demanded that Durov hand over all communications among Euromaidan protesters, in Kiev, Ukraine. Specific individuals were targeted by the Kremlin as well using Federal Law No. 144 “On Operational and Investigative Activities” (Article 9) and No. 149 “On Information, Information Technology, and Protection of Information.” The documents from the Russian government have been made public on the social media website.
In a statement on VKontakte, Durov said he refused to surrender the information because it was a violation of Ukrainian citizens’ rights as well as illegal, and that the aforementioned laws were not applicable. Subsequently, he was pushed out by partners with opposing interests and sold his shares in the company, which is now owned by Mail.ru and United Capital Partners. Both organizations have close ties to the Kremlin. Durovremained Acting Director General until it was clear in April 2014 that the other stakeholders intended to toe the line and hand over the information to the FSB. He stepped down from his leadership position in order to follow his conscience.
Putin has a massive propaganda machine and counts on people having a short memory, a lack of access to facts, or a willingness to accept his brand of paternalistic truthiness. Directly pressuring VKontakte and other private companies into turning over protected information is not its only means of gathering intelligence; it does actually have a surveillance program: SORM. The System for Operative Investigative Activities, was upgraded in time for the Sochi Olympics and has been described as ‘Prism on steroids’ (a reference to the U.S./NSA program). The program reportedly has the capability of singling out sensitive words and phrases in email, social media, webchats and via telephone.
Despite Putin’s attempts to sell this tale of Russia not being capable of U.S. level spying technology in order to achieve the global respect for which he is so desperate, it just isn’t so. Putin has the capability and the will to track communications by any means necessary. He also clearly holds the power to manipulate the Snowden camp, regardless of whether they acknowledge the situation.