Snowden Leaves Hong Kong (Updated)

Hong Kong authorities confirmed on Sunday that NSA leaker Edward Snowden has left the city. According to a frequently updated report at South China Morning Post, the 29-year-old boarded a commercial flight bound for Moscow on Sunday morning.

Snowden is believed to be heading on to a third country, though Russian MPs have called for him to be offered asylum there. Ecuador, Iceland, Venezuela and Cuba have all been raised as destinations amid considerable, possibly deliberate confusion. Whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks tweeted that Snowden was “accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors“, and that it had “assisted Mr. Snowden’s political asylum in a democratic country, travel papers [and] safe exit from Hong Kong.” According to reports over the past several days, figures associated with the group have been pursuing an asylum agreement with Icelandic authorities, and claimed to have arranged a private jet to take him there from Hong Kong. But according to a purported source at Aeroflot, the airline has a reservation in his name from Moscow to Cuba, from where he might travel on to yet another country, perhaps Venezuela. See The Guardian’s liveblog for more details and breaking news.

Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong came as a relief to its government, according to SCMP, rendering moot extensive speculation about a prolonged legal battle against extradition. The U.S. issued formal charges against Snowden on Friday, and warned Hong Kong to act swiftly in arresting him. But a press release from the Hong Kong government stated that the U.S. request did not “fully comply with […] legal requirements”, giving it no legal basis on which to prevent Snowden from leaving.

Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today (June 23) on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.

The US Government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR Government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden. Since the documents provided by the US Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR Government has requested the US Government to provide additional information so that the Department of Justice could consider whether the US Government’s request can meet the relevant legal conditions. As the HKSAR Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.

The HKSAR Government has already informed the US Government of Mr Snowden’s departure.

Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong. [Source]

Snowden told the South China Morning Post soon after his emergence that the NSA had hacked hundreds of civilian computer systems in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. These accusations were expanded by a flurry of SCMP reports on Sunday, based on Snowden’s claims that the U.S. hacked Chinese cell phone companies to obtain SMS messages, mounted “intensive and concerted” attacks on systems at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, and had previously infiltrated Pacnet, a major regional operator of submarine fiber-optic cables:

For years, cybersecurity experts on the mainland have been concerned that telecommunications equipment was vulnerable to so-called “backdoor” attacks, taking advantage of foreign-made components. They have kept quiet because domestic hardware suppliers were still striving to catch up with their international competitors.

Now, as the likes of Huawei, Datang and ZTE dramatically improve their suite of products and the reliance on foreign-made parts has dropped, some experts with ties to Beijing have become more vocal.

[…] Telecom companies have started replacing foreign-made equipment.

China Unicom quietly replaced all Cisco routers at a key backbone hub in Wuxi, Jiangsu last year, according to the National Business Daily.

The changes are being kept quiet to avoid panic and embarrassment to the government, people in the industry say. [Source]

[Tsinghua] university is home to one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks, the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) from where internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined.

[…] Universities in Hong Kong and the mainland were revealed as targets of NSA’s cyber-snooping activities last week when Snowden claimed the Chinese University of Hong Kong had been hacked.

Chinese University is home to the Hong Kong Internet Exchange, the city’s central hub for all internet traffic.

Snowden said the NSA was focusing much attention on so-called “network backbones”, through which vast amounts of date passed. [Source]

The latest revelations come as the scope of cyber-spying by US and UK secret agents widened with new reports by The Guardian newspaper claiming the UK spy agency, GCHQ has the means to tap into a wealth of data held in fibre-optic cables.

[…] Pacnet, which has global headquarters in Hong Kong and Singapore, owns more than 46,000 kilometres of fibre-optic submarine cables and provides connections to 16 data centres for telecom companies, multinationals and governments across Asia Pacific.

Its regional network spans Hong Kong, the mainland, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore. [Source]

At Xinhua, Ming Jinwei responded to these latest reports by labeling the U.S. “the biggest villain in our age”:

These, along with previous allegations, are clearly troubling signs. They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.

At the moment, Washington is busy with a legal process of extraditing whistleblower Snowden.

But for other countries, Washington should come clean about its record first. It owes too an explanation to China and other countries it has allegedly spied on. It has to share with the world the range, extent and intent of its clandestine hacking programs.

[…] Both the United States and China, together with many other countries, are victims of hacking. For the uncharted waters of Internet age, these countries should sit down and talk through their suspicions.

[…] The ball is now in Washington’s court. The U.S. government had better move to allay the concerns of other countries. [Source]

Update: The New York Times reports that the Chinese government likely gave the go-ahead for Hong Kong to allow Snowden to leave:

Hong Kong authorities have insisted that their judicial process remained independent of China, but these observers — who like many in this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about confidential discussions — said that matters of foreign policy are the domain of the Chinese government, and Beijing exercised that authority in allowing Snowden to go.

From China’s point of view, analysts said, the departure of Snowden solved two concerns: how to prevent Beijing’s relationship with the United States from being ensnared in a long legal wrangle in Hong Kong over Snowden, and how to deal with a Chinese public that widely regards the American computer expert as a hero.

“Behind the door there was definitely some coordination between Hong Kong and Beijing,” said Jin Canrong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

See also: “Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong spares China a headache” from the Los Angeles Times.