GCHQ hacks the fiber backbones and Snowden heads for Ecuador

"It's not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight," Snowden told the Guardian. "They [GCHQ] are worse than the US." According to documents shown by Snowden to the Guardian, GCHQ along with its NSA partner has two major projects: “Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible.” The information harvested is made available to the NSA, where the Guardian believes that 850,000 NSA employees and contractors have access to GCHQ databases. “By last year,” reports the Guardian, “GCHQ was handling 600m ‘telephone events’ each day, had tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables and was able to process data from at least 46 of them at a time.”

Meanwhile, Snowden also disclosed that the NSA isn’t just involved in passive surveillance. He told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that in 2009 the NSA hacked into computers at Pacnet’s Hong Kong headquarters, and was attempting to hack into the internet exchange at Hong Kong’s Chinese University. “Snowden said he believed the US National Security Agency had carried out 61,000 hacking operations around the world, including hundreds against targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland,” says SCMP. "We hack network backbones - like huge internet routers, basically - that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” said Snowden.

In the US Snowden has now been charged with ‘theft of government property’, ‘unauthorized communication of national defense information’, and ‘willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.’ The latter two are felonies under the Espionage Act – which many have suggested is somewhat ironic. “The irony is obvious: the same people who are building a ubiquitous surveillance system to spy on everyone in the world, including their own citizens, are now accusing the person who exposed it of ‘espionage’,” writes Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the original stories. 

By this time Snowden was somewhere in Hong Kong. The US authorities asked Hong Kong to detain him pending extradition procedures. However, Hong Kong declined to do so, and accompanied by legal representatives from WikiLeaks, Snowden boarded a plane for Moscow. The Hong Kong government (HKSAR) issued a statement yesterday. “Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel, and Hong Kong has informed the US Government of his departure.” HKSAR explained that the US had not provided sufficient information to justify a provisional arrest warrant, and “there was no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”

It adds, however, “At the same time, it has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies.”

It is thought that Snowden does not have a valid visa for Russia, and although it was always thought he would just pass through Russia on route for Cuba and beyond, it is also thought that this would not be allowed without the personal approval of Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was furious. “What’s infuriating here is Prime Minister [sic] Putin of Russia aiding and abetting Snowden’s escape... I think it will have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship.”

At first it was thought that Snowden was ultimately heading for Venezuela, with little love lost between the two countries. Yesterday evening, however, Ricardo Patiño, minister of foreign affairs for Ecuador, tweeted, “The government of Ecuador has received asylum from Edward # Snowden .” Given that Ecuador has provided WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange with asylum (coincidentally for exactly one year) and that WikiLeaks officials are traveling with Snowden, this would appear to be the chosen destination.

Marking the anniversary of his exile in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, Assange said on Saturday, “I have been able to work in relative safety from a US espionage investigation. But today, Edward Snowden’s ordeal is just beginning.”

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