Edward Snowden is safe from American "justice" for the moment, and he will certainly go down as the most effective whistle-blower in history. His revelations are going to cause a wholesale restructuring of the world's most important communications system, the Internet. And that, rather than his whereabouts and fate, is now the real story.
On 8 August Lavabit, a U.S.-based email service provider that promised to keep its clients' communications private, closed down. The U.S. National Security Agency approached it about six weeks ago demanding the same access to its customers' emails that it has already extorted from big American internet companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft.
The company's owner, Ladar Levison, is under an NSA gag order, but he wrote to his clients: "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States."
Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle, another encrypted email service that has just shut down because it cannot protect its clients' data, went even further. "Email (that uses standard Internet protocols)... cannot be secure," he wrote.
The mass surveillance being carried out by the NSA not only gives the U.S. government access to everything Americans say to one another. It also destroys everybody else's privacy, because the standard Internet routing protocol sends messages not by the shortest route, but by whichever route is fastest and least congested. That means, in most cases, through the United States, and therefore straight into the hands of the NSA.
Snowden's revelations so far have told us about two major NSA surveillance programs, both probably illegal even under American law. The first collects the mobile phone records of over 200 million Americans.
Don't worry your pretty head about that, darling, said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee: "This is just metadata, there is no content involved." The NSA isn't actually listening to your calls.
Well, OF COURSE it isn't listening to billions of calls. Machines can't listen to calls, and who has the manpower to do it with human beings? But machines can quickly use the call logs (metadata) to identify everybody you ever talked to, and everybody they ever talked to, and so on out to the fourth or fifth generation.
If one of those thousands of people ever spoke to somebody abroad with a Muslim name (or somebody who works for Siemens, or Samsung, or some other industrial competitor of the United States), they may take an interest in you. If you're an American who has never had direct phone contact with anybody abroad, they may then apply to access the content of your calls and emails under the Prism program.