Data Privacy and Security

Prism Whistle-Blower Faces Uncertain Future in Hong Kong

Over the weekend, Hong Kong-ers awoke to the surreal news that the man responsible for one of the most explosive leaks of US national security intelligence ever seen was holed up in the tiny city-state. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and, until recently, information security engineer at defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, is thought to have been lying low in the region for the past three weeks.

Having revealed his identity to The Guardian, Snowden now faces an uncomfortable time as journalists, CIA operatives based at the US consulate here, and potentially local security forces all try to track him down. On Monday, he’s thought to have checked out of the Mira Hotel in Tsim Tsa Tsui on Kowloon side. It’s a swish, modern hotel that I’ve visited several times for IDC analyst events where rooms are as much as £200 a night – no problem for Snowden on his reported $200,000/year income. Local Wall Street Journal reporters tracked an “Edward Snowden” down to a room at the Mira, a few minutes before the same person checked out, so it’s pretty likely he’ll try to keep moving while figuring out what to do.

Many people have been wondering why he chose Hong Kong to hole up in at all. He told The Guardian it was because the locals have "a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent", which is certainly true. Tens of thousands turn out every year to a rally on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, led by survivors of those dark days in 1989 which are still not acknowledged by Beijing. Last year, there were even hunger strikes by locals in protest at the proposed introduction of “patriotic education” courses in Hong Kong schools – which many believed was an attempt by mainland rulers to brainwash those in the Special Administrative Region.

No wonder then that local liberal politicians like Civic Party leader Alan Leong have even come out to say how proud they are Snowden chose Hong Kong as a place that could protect him. But as many experts have pointed out in these parts, there are also a few good reasons why his position may be more than a little precarious. After all, despite the “one-country-two-systems” rule which ensures its citizens still enjoy the rule of law, press freedom, free internet and other basic human rights as they did pre-1997 when the British were in charge, Hong Kong is still ultimately a part of China – not known for its protection of basic freedoms. Even Hong Kong’s CEO is not directly elected by the people but chosen by a group of pro-Beijing businessmen, while its media is becoming increasingly homogenised and subject to growing allegations of self-censorship.

The killer, though, is that Hong Kong has had a tried-and-tested extradition treaty in place with the US since 1998 – one it has complied with many times in the past to send suspects back to the States. Former security secretary Regina Ip has been doing the rounds on local TV saying that Hong Kong is “duty-bound” to comply with any requests and that he should leave Hong Kong before the extradition order lands.  “Hong Kong is not a legal vacuum as Mr Snowden might have thought,” she added.

A final option would be to apply for asylum in Hong Kong, which could buy him more time because the government does not even have in place a screening mechanism to assess such requests, HK legal expert Simon Young said. “Short of a criminal group getting to him, I think he is safe here,” he told Christian Science Monitor.

As a US citizen he has three months before he needs to leave Hong Kong’s borders. Unless Snowden were to fly elsewhere, his relative safety in the former British colony may in the end come down to how big a fuss the locals make of protecting him, and how far Beijing wants to twist the knife with the US. It has the power to step in over extradition cases if necessary but most experts are pretty sure it will not want to ruin bilateral relations over the issue, even though the temptation to must be overwhelming. We’ll certainly know more when the government starts answering its phones – China is on holiday for Dragon Boat festival until Thursday – although we can probably work out its stance by taking a look at the state-run media response to the scandal.

Put simply, the whole Prism affair has been virtually ignored in China, despite the revelations being hugely embarrassing for the US, given that human rights protections form one of the main ideological differences between it and China. Even Communist mouthpiece the Global Times, which loves to gloat at a good scandal outside the Great Firewall, has largely kept silent. The truth is, when it comes down to it, what is alleged to have gone on in the US is small fry compared to the oppressive state snooping apparatus that exists in China. It does no good for Beijing to draw attention to this fact, or that even Hong Kong-ers enjoy a level of personal freedom most Chinese citizens can only dream of.


John Anderson has been writing about technology and all things Asia for over a decade. From his perch in the Far East he keeps a keen eye on the global significance of emerging trends in the region. 


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John Anderson

John Anderson has been writing about technology and all things Asia for over a decade, having started out on some of the UK's best known best-known IT trade titles. From his perch in the Far East he keeps a keen eye on the global significance of emerging trends in the region. 

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