Before conclusions can be made, here is a brief timeline of significant events surrounding both Assange and Snowden:
Julian Assange – founded Wikileaks in 2006
D.O.B: July 3 1971
Place of Birth: Queensland Australia
Months in exile: 17 (and counting).
November 2008 – releases information about members of the British National Party (BNP), which include police officers, doctors and professors.
September 2009 – the Minton Report is exposed. The report contains secure information of how waste dumping in the Ivory Coast is effecting up to 108,000 people. The Guardian is subjected to a gag order and has to wait for 5 weeks until they can report on it.
April 2010 – An American Soldier, Bradley Manning, who had allegedly contacted Assange, releases a video of how a US helicopter strike kills 15 civilians in Baghdad Iraq in 2007.
August 2010 – Swedish authorities issue Assange with an international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual assault against two women in Stockholm – which he has repeatedly denied.
September 2011 – WikiLeaks publishes Cache of unredacted cables from the US Embassies, putting many sources at risk. A media organisation, including the UK Guardian and the New York Times strongly condemn the move.
June 2012 – Assange makes a plea for asylum from Ecuador, after seeking refuge at the country’s embassy in London. The foreign minister announces that they would comply with the request according to the rules of international law. Sweden still waits to try him in court for his charges.
Edward Snowden – former CIA and NSA employee
D.O.B – June 21 1983
Place of Birth: North Carolina, United States.
Months in Exile: 5 months (and counting).
6th June 2013 – Guardian Journalist reports that the United States NSA is collecting telephone records from Verizon customers under a top secret court order granting the government authority to obtain communications data for a three month period.
7th June 2013 Surveillance programme Prism is discovered by Guardian and Washington Post. Google and Facebook data is being collected including emails, live chats and search histories.
8th June 2013 – Obama says government surveillance strikes right balance between security and privacy.
9th June 2013 – Snowden is named as source of intelligence leaks, and is in hiding in Hong Kong.
12th June 2013 – John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, calls Snowden a traitor.
19th June 2013 – NSA Director Alexander tells US House intelligence committee the programmes leaked ‘helped to thwart 50 attacks’ since 2001.
23rd June 2013 – Snowden flies to Moscow – US relations with Russia become increasingly stretched as a result.
It is clear Assange and Snowden believe that their actions are justified. It has been suggested that both feel that leading governments and corporations act together in a type of international cartel. In western democracies at least, the issue of transparency is central to this story.
Additionally, do the actions by Snowden and WikiLeaks act as a further check and balance to the relevant governments, and in particular their security agencies?
We must also question the role of the news outlets, who are choosing to publish the leaks. The Washington Post in the US and the UK’s Guardian Newspaper have taken the side of Assange and Snowden. They subscribe to the view that information is leaked for the ‘greater good’.
However, transparency comes at a cost. The leaking of ‘vital’ intelligence has brought several consequences and dangers to governments and citizens alike.
It is argued that 50 attacks have been thwarted as a result of monitoring potential terrorist suspects. This could be truth, conjecture or just plain lies. Without the ability to verify statistics such as these, doubt will always be cast over those who are protecting us, sometimes through dubious methods. Those who argue against the activities of Snowden and WikiLeaks believe it is better to be safe than sorry.
Are there similarities between the two? Both feel that various government agencies and corporations are guilty of conducting unlawful activities with regards to the privacy of their citizens. Are the leakers only outing details that would hurt the respective governments? Currently, this question is very difficult to answer from the outside, as only few people within these security agencies really know the real danger of the leaks to the public.
What are the political ramifications? USA and Russia are in tense relations over Snowden. Indeed, Ecuador has suffered to an extent too, with relations becoming increasingly strained with the US. However, there does not yet seem to be any tangible evidence of this. Tensions between Germany and the US are arguably the most significant at the moment. Germany may offer refuge to Snowden, despite it being against the wishes of the US, after it was found that the NSA were listening in on the phone calls of Chancellor Merkel’s phone.
The crux of the matter is this: through leaking, do the benefits of transparency outweigh the threat to national security? This matter is for the individual to decide.