The spy who came in from the heat

Because Hong Kong is a small, compact metropolis compared to the other sprawling cities of Southeast Asia, it’s easy for the authorities to spy on its inhabitants. Hence, one can find CCTV cameras mounted unobtrusively in elevators, on streets outside government buildings, in banks and offices. If some crisis occurs, it is possible for the police to check and track down the mischief-makers. The ordinary citizen may not be aware of the prevalence of surveillance, but it’s there. This is why Hong Kong is considered one of the safest cities in Asia.

In the past few weeks Hongkongers were thrown into a paranoid panic when an employee of a contractor to the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) arrived in the territory to tell the world about the extent of American surveillance. Edward Snowden had been working for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii when he decided to purloin top-secret material, and then descend on the Chinese territory like an avenging angel. By spilling the beans about how practically everyone on the planet is being snooped on by the Americans, he professed his idealism by assailing what he termed his country’s “criminal” activity. He became an instant hero to countless people, Chinese and Westerners alike; swaths of panic-stricken folks were enraged that their bank accounts, remarks on Facebook, e-mail correspondence, secrets and the like had probably been checked by the CIA. There may not be many Hong Kong individuals engaged in terrorist acts like constructing bombs or, like China, stealing American technological blueprints, but it seemed everyone was up in arms that their sacrosanct private affairs were being scrutinized.


The brouhaha reminded me of a series of

cartoon books published decades ago called “Where’s Waldo?” which consisted of intricate illustrations showing mobs of people, buildings and mazes that one had to scan minutely to try and find an elusive character named Waldo. He looked quite innocuous, and I could never find him even after minutes of scanning the colorful pages. It seemed only teenagers could spot him in unlikely corners of the books where he looked like part of the shrubbery.


So, like that hunt for the fictitious Waldo, Hong Kong in the past few weeks was engaged in a game of “Where’s Snowden?” because he was soon sequestered in the territory. After contacting and giving interviews to the British newspaper The Guardian, the Washington Post and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post to show the extent of US surveillance of governments, institutions and individuals around the world, Snowden was almost reverentially referred to as a “whistle-blower,” an honorific showing that his fans viewed him almost like the second Messiah.

There was cursing and gnashing of teeth by various classes of people over what was seen as the villainous American practice of surveillance. Hong Kong government officials, professionals, businessmen, university students, socialites and Facebook addicts were uniformly up in arms at learning the chances were good that their online privacy had been violated for quite some time. The thought that both millionaires and the little man in the street would have their bank accounts inspected and daily affairs revealed, that secret government operations would be spied on, that scientific experiments would be scrutinized, was just too much for ordinary and important folks. Hong Kong turned into a whirlpool of paranoia, with countless people thoroughly exercised by the revelations of the American who’d landed suddenly in the territory.

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, Snowden quickly boarded a flight to Moscow after reports said that that other whistle-blower, Julian Assange, would help him get asylum in Ecuador (since Assange has been sequestered in that country’s London embassy for a year now).  There was also an offer from a wealthy Icelandic businessman to fly Snowden to Reykjavic, but it seems he preferred to go to Havana. As of this writing, the Russians have Snowden in their airport terminal, with Vladimir Putin himself declaring that they had no interest in detaining the fugitive or allowing him to stay. There’s little doubt those former Soviet masters of espionage are squeezing as much as they can from the American so as to thumb their noses further at Washington.

The whole Snowden business made me think what a pity that our Philippine officials, particularly those in the toothless and inept Presidential Commission on Good Government, who had long been tasked with hunting down the Marcos loot, had not asked for advice from the American NSA.

Isabel T. Escoda is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

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TAGS: CCTV cameras, espionage, news, right to privacy, surveillance, United States National Security Agency
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