Pulling a small black suitcase and carrying a selection of laptop bags over his shoulders, Ed Snowden would have attracted little attention as he arrived at Hong Kong International Airport just over three weeks ago.
However, Snowden was not your average tourist or businessman: He was carrying four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly classified secrets.
Just over three weeks later, he is the world’s most famous spy, whistleblower and fugitive, responsible for the biggest intelligence breach in recent US history. News organizations around the globe have described him as the US’ most wanted. Members of the US Congress have denounced him as a defector whose actions amount to treason and have demanded he be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
His supporters argue that his actions have opened up a much-needed debate on the balance between security and privacy in the modern world.
So, is he whistleblower or traitor?
Snowden, 29, flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii, where he had been working for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the US’ National Security Agency, the biggest spy surveillance organization in the world.
Since Monday morning last week, he has been underground. Hong Kong-based journalists, joined by arriving international ones, have been hunting for him around the territory. At the height of the search, reporters recruited Twitter followers to see if they could identify the lighting and hotel furnishings from the video in which he went public. They could: It was the US$330-a-night Mira Hotel, on Nathan Road, the main shopping drag in Kowloon.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before he was found, Snowden checked out at lunchtime on Monday. It is thought he is now in a safe house.
What happens now? The US is on the verge of pressing criminal charges against him that would lead to extradition proceedings, with a view to bringing him back to the US for trial and, eventually, jail.
If the US is planning to jail for life US Army Private Bradley Manning, who was behind the WikiLeaks release of tens of thousands of US Department of State memos in 2010, what retribution lies in store for Snowden, guilty of leaking on a much bigger scale? The documents Manning released were merely classified, while Snowden’s were top secret and circulation was extremely limited.
For a US citizen, the traditional home for the kind of story Snowden was planning to reveal would have been the New York Times. However, during extensive interviews last week with a Guardian team, he recalled how dismayed he had been to discover the Times had had a great scoop in the election year of 2004 — that the administration of then-US president George W. Bush, after Sep. 11, 2001, allowed the NSA to snoop on US citizens without warrants — but had sat on it for a year before finally publishing.
Snowden said this was a turning point for him, confirming him in his belief that traditional media outlets could not be trusted. He looked around for alternative journalists who were anti-establishment and at home with blogging and other social media. The member of this generation that he most trusted was the Guardian commentator Glenn Greenwald.
In January, he reached out to the documentary filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, and they began a correspondence. In mid-February, he sent an e-mail to Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, suggesting he set up a method for receiving and sending encrypted e-mails. Snowden even made a YouTube video for Greenwald, to take him step by step through the process of encryption.