Edward Snowden

SCMP Reporter Danny Lee goes 'off the grid'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 8:08am

It's 8pm on a Friday evening and my personal belongings have been confiscated by my bosses.

The Edward Snowden experience starts now.

The former National Security Agency intelligence contractor who was hiding in Hong Kong until last Sunday - and is now believed to be in a transit zone at a Moscow airport - is likely using unhackable, untrackable technology to avoid leaving a digital trail.

Snowden's career came crashing down after his disclosure of Prism, the United States' top secret spying programme. In the process, he has lifted the lid on intelligence gathering that targets unsuspecting individuals.

Whatever we read, search, share, tweet or post from the internet and technology, a portfolio builds up. That's known as our digital footprint.

Now wanted by America, Snowden is "off the grid".

But how easy is it to slip under the radar? For three days I have "voluntarily" surrendered my phone, laptop and other personal items. Until now, the longest time I had spent without access to these communication tools was a 12-hour long-haul flight from Hong Kong to London.

To go "off the grid" in Hong Kong, I handed over my bank ATM and Octopus cards, and my security pass for work - all of which store location information.

If anybody gets a call from me over the weekend, it will be from a payphone. To this, one colleague chirps: "You should send a letter." I'm not amused.

I am left with HK$1,000 in notes and HK$19.70 in coins, and a sad-looking, half-empty wallet.

As I leave the newsroom, my natural reaction is to check my phone. It's a habit that will be hard to break.

After a long week at work, it should be the time to call friends and meet them for drinks. Instead, I am struggling to find a payphone and getting increasingly frustrated as I waste HK$5 coins trying to get through to them, until I eventually give up.

The next day happens to be the day I am moving to a new apartment. Having no direct communication with my estate agent makes a stressful task considerably more difficult.

Even buying a ticket for the MTR is a headache. Lacking coins, I deliberately break into a crisp HK$500 note to gather as much change as possible.

"Octopus card?" the MTR employee prompts, apparently puzzled when I politely decline.

I buy a dozen MTR tickets, but four of them don't work for some unknown reason and I end up wasting a lot of time haggling with station staff over them.

When I finally get inside the office of my estate agent in Lan Kwai Fong, I hear that familiar Nokia ringtone: "di-de-dei-dee-di-de-dei-dee." Instinctively, I stand there patting down my pockets trying to find my phone, but I'm left phone-less and looking pretty stupid. Regardless, I do need to make a call and spend 45 minutes traipsing around in the heat trying to find a payphone. They're not that easy to find when you need one

After a weekend of frustration, I have to convince the security guard at the South China Morning Post entrance that despite not having my security pass, I am indeed an employee.

So far, I've had two nights of restless sleep. I even dreamed I'd sent a WhatsApp message to a new friend. Then I fired off an e-mail in error. In both dreams I prepared an apology to my editors for breaking the rules.

So how did I cope without the internet, a computer, my phone, extra cash or any access to information? Not very well - and that was only for three days.