A former CIA worker has revealed himself as the source of leaked information on a secret US spy programme that harvests internet and phone records of US citizens and foreigners.
Edward Snowden, a current employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, said he leaked information on the Prism programme to protect “basic liberties for people around the world”.
“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, the 29-year-old said he had no intention of hiding “because I have done nothing wrong”, but was aware that his actions had made him a target for US agencies.
The full interview was uploaded to the internet shortly after it was published by the newspaper.
Snowden leaked a presentation on the Prism surveillance system, which allows the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI direct access to the servers of US internet firms such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL.
It scooped emails, video chats, instant messages and more to track foreign suspects. The NSA is also collecting the telephone records of millions of US citizens, but not actual conversations.
I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties.
Snowden told The Guardian that he worked in IT security for the CIA and by 2007 was stationed with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland, where he had access to a range of classified documents.
“Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world,” he said. “I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”
He left in 2009 and later began working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the NSA, in Hawaii. It was there, three weeks ago, that he decided to leak the information on Prism.
“I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” he told The Guardian.
“I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
Booz Allen confirmed on Sunday that Snowden was an employee of the company. It added that it would cooperate with any investigations.
Snowden spoke in Hong Kong, where he believes there will be an attempt by the US government to have him extradited.
Any extradition request could be hampered if Snowden can show Chinese authorities he could face abuse, torture or unfair treatment in the US.
The leaks have reopened the debate about privacy concerns versus heightened measure to protect against attacks, and led NSA to ask the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation.
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The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has condemned the revelation of the intelligence-gathering programmes as reckless, and in the past days had taken the rare step of declassifying some details about them to respond to media reports about counter-terrorism techniques employed by the government.
President Barack Obama, Clapper and others have said the programmes have been authorised by Congress and are subject to strict supervision of a secret court.
Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive who also became a whistleblower, said: “The US intelligence will do everything it can to prosecute Snowden. His is a magnificent, extraordinary act of civil disobedience.
He said Prism “goes far beyond any legal mandate, any war on terrorism, or any threat. I mean what’s the probable cause – because they might need the data some time later?”