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One of America's most consequential whistleblowers, Edward Snowden, came out of hiding in Hong Kong on Monday.
The 29-year-old employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and former CIA technical assistant revealed his identity and location to The Guardian in a series of interviews published today.
"I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he told the British daily after he exposed secret surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. He showed documents to The Guardian which included details of:
- how the NSA collects and stores the phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans
- exploits data from the world's largest Internet companies with their apparent co-operation
Snowden is said to have arrived in Hong Kong on May 20 from his home in Hawaii. He has been staying at an unnamed "plush hotel" ever since, running up high bills and leaving the room "maybe a total of three times".
He chose the city, he said, because Hong Kong had "a spirit commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent."
"I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom," he said. "Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China."
Hong Kong could refuse to extradite Snowden if Beijng wanted to keep him, according to a treaty signed between the United States and Hong Kong almost two decades ago.
Video: The Post talks to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the NSA surveillance story
Snowden feared that he would be taken away by the Chinese government for questioning over his extensive expertise in US intelligence gathering technology or "rendered" to the CIA or third-party partners.
US government sources told Reuters news agency last week that they are likely to initiate a criminal investigation into the leak.
To prevent being spied on, Snowden reportedly stuffs pillows against the doors and “puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords."
Information leaked by Snowden was reported by the Guardian and the Washington Post last week. He singlehandedly exposed a massive US intelligence programme called Prism, under which the US government secretly collected information online from private user accounts operated by Facebook, Google, Apple and other companies.
Internet service providers insisted on Monday that they had not given direct access to customer data.
"Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period,” Google’s CEO Larry Page and chief legal officer David Drummond said in a message on their official company blog.
"We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law,” they said.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described the press reports as ”outrageous,” insisting that his firm only provided user information to the authorities when compelled to by law. Yahoo! issued a similar denial.
Snowden said he hoped the Hong Kong government would not deport him. "My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values. The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over internet freedom. I have no idea what my future is going to be," he told the Guardian.
In a statement, Booz Allen Hamilton confirmed Snowden had been an employee for “less than three months” and promised to help US authorities investigate the “shocking” claim that he had leaked classified information.
The office of the Director of National Intelligence said the matter had now been ”referred to the Department of Justice.”
“The intelligence community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures,” it said.
“Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law.”