NSA: Neat hacks vs democratic control

This morning’s Observer column.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. And then there’s Edward Snowden, who was a spy and then became something else. Nobody’s neutral about him. The other day I heard a senior military officer describe him unambiguously as “a thief”. In Washington he seems to be universally¬†regarded as a traitor. Many people in Europe regard him as, at worst, a principled whistleblower and, at best, a hero in the Daniel Ellsberg mould.

Whatever you think about him, though, one thing is clear: Snowden is a pretty astute geek. The evidence for this is in the way he approached his whistleblowing task. Having concluded (as several other distinguished National Security Agency employees before him had) that the NSA had misinterpreted or overstepped its brief, he then identified prominent instances of agency overreach and for each category downloaded evidence that supported his conjecture.

We’re now getting to the point where we can begin to assess the bigger picture. What do the Snowden revelations tell us about what’s wrong with the NSA ‚Äď and its leading overseas franchise, our own dear GCHQ?

Read on.