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The Google employee who helped Edward Snowden in Hong Kong | Edward Snowden

The Google employee who helped Edward Snowden in Hong Kong | Edward Snowden


Early on the morning of 10 June 2013, Hong Kong time, the journalist Glenn Greenwald and film-maker Laura Poitras published on the Guardian site a video revealing the identity of the NSA whistleblower behind one of the most damning leaks in modern history. It began: “My name is Ed Snowden.”

William Fitzgerald, then a 27-year-old policy employee at Google, knew he wanted to help. But he didn’t yet know how.

Snowden was arguably the most wanted man in the world. The confidential documents he shared with Greenwald, Poitras and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill detailed a sweeping US government surveillance program that was global in reach and involved some of the world’s best known tech companies. Fitzgerald, who had been working at Google since 2008 and was then based in its Hong Kong office, emailed Greenwald from his personal Gmail on a whim.

“if looking for alternative options to protect Edward within Hong Kong, i am on hand to assist,” read the email, reviewed by the Guardian.

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Hours later, Fitzgerald found himself waiting in the lobby of the Hong Kong W Hotel to meet Greenwald and introduce him to Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man – the men who became Snowden’s legal representatives and hid him in the homes of Tibbo’s Sri Lankan refugee clients.

It’s been 10 years since the Snowden files were first published, by the Guardian, and Fitzgerald, who continued to work at Google until 2018, feels ready to share the small role he had in the story. Referred to only as a “longtime reader” of Greenwald’s in the then Guardian columnist’s book detailing the marathon week he spent in Hong Kong meeting with Snowden and dealing with the aftermath of his disclosures, Fitzgerald admits the motivation to share his story is not entirely selfless. He wants it written in history that he was the “longtime reader” and that at the time, he was willing to risk everything – just as he believed Snowden had.

Train passengers watch a TV screen broadcasting news on Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, June 2013. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

In 2013, the internet and tech industry – especially his employer – felt like a wholly different place than it is today, Fitzgerald said. In the aftermath of the Arab spring, there was hope and optimism the tools connecting the world in unprecedented ways could be forces of social good. But the Snowden files told a more sinister story, revealing mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA), using those tools to spy on the very consumers the companies that built them purported to empower.

The NSA files suggested that some tech firms, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, were aware. These companies vehemently denied any role in the government’s spying programs and even took a stance against them, joining with groups like the digital advocacy non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation to increase the use of encryption on the internet.

For Fitzgerald, it was hard to reconcile Snowden’s disclosures with the optimism he felt about the internet’s potential. But he believed the documents were authentic. By watching Greenwald’s TV interviews as the first Snowden stories broke in the Guardian, Fitzgerald realized they were both in Hong Kong. He asked Greenwald for coffee, eager to meet one of the reporters behind these monumental stories – even if they indicated his employer, Google, knew the NSA was tapping directly into its servers to access user data. By the time Snowden revealed his identity, Fitzgerald and Greenwald already planned to meet.

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“Are you a lawyer?” Greenwald responded to his email offering to help protect Snowden. While Fitzgerald wasn’t, he knew one of the pre-eminent human rights lawyers in the city through a master’s program at Hong Kong University. “No, but I have some friends who are,” he responded.

William Fitzgerald at the Google offices in Hong Kong in 2013.
William Fitzgerald at the Google offices in Hong Kong in 2013. Photograph: Courtesy of the subject

Greenwald doesn’t remember knowing if Fitzgerald worked for Google when they first met. He just knew Snowden needed help. Snowden had urged Greenwald to focus on reporting rather than protecting him, Greenwald said, which is how Snowden wound up outing himself as the source without legal counsel. Though Greenwald had never met Fitzgerald before, he said he trusted his intuition. “Obviously, our skepticism was at an all-time high about everything,” Greenwald told the Guardian.

“We didn’t know what the US government knew, what the CIA was doing, what the Hong Kong local authorities were doing,” he said. “So when someone just appears out of nowhere like this offering to help, of course you’re very suspicious.”

Greenwald wasn’t surprised that a Google employee would be supportive of Snowden, however, because that was “really the ethos of what Silicon Valley was originally meant to bring”.

When Fitzgerald joined Google in 2010, the company appeared committed to preserving free expression and privacy. Shortly after, for instance, the company hired several people to staff a “free expression” team in several regions that advised on policies to maintain a free and open internet.

Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was hired to lead that team in Asia. In 2010, the company also became the first tech firm to publish a transparency report detailing how often governments requested access to user data and for content to be taken down, a mechanism intended to shame those countries who most frequently issued them, Fitzgerald said. (Google said the transparency report was created as a tool to inform “users and public debate.)

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After the Snowden leaks, Google and other tech firms worked to distance themselves from the NSA’s efforts because as a global company, “they could not afford to be seen as servants of the US intelligence community,” said Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project and Snowden’s current attorney.

But over time, the company culture appeared to shift, reflecting the changing needs of various governments. Before he left Google in 2014, for instance, Tsui said some local Asian governments became more hostile to free expression efforts and he struggled to convince colleagues responsible for maintaining relationships with those governments to prioritize free speech. “If your job is to maintain good relationships with the local government, the last thing you want to do is bring up freedom of speech in at least most Asian places,” he told the Guardian.

The South China Morning Post on the morning of 13 June 2013.
The South China Morning Post on the morning of 13 June 2013. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Fitzgerald stayed on four years longer, but said he also witnessed the culture shift as the company matured. For instance, he said Google stopped promoting its transparency report to the media, free expression advocates were replaced by more traditional business-focused executives, and then there was Project Maven – the controversial Department of Defense drone project that Google signed on to build artificial intelligence for, and later succumbed to employee pressure to back out of in 2018.

“There was a slow erosion of a lot of these things that Google had said they cared about,” said Fitzgerald, who has since founded The Worker Agency, an advocacy and communications firm that counts a Google worker union among its clients.

Google isn’t alone in vying for government contracts – Microsoft, Amazon, IBM have all since made a play for or struck multi-million dollar deals to build tools of surveillance for various entities including the Pentagon.

Google “has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad or otherwise inappropriate demands” and, at times, rejects government requests entirely, said Christa Muldoon, a company spokesperson.

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“That commitment is just as strong today as it was in 2013,” Muldoon said in a statement. “Our transparency reports give people detailed information about government demands, as well as the progress of our work to drive encryption technologies across our products and the Internet.”

Opinions differ on how much the tech industry has evolved since Snowden. Fitzgerald and Greenwald both say it has increasingly given into government pressures to hand over user data or censor posts. Wizner, on the other hand, credits tech firms for bolstering their legal defense against government requests for data. The default before Snowden’s revelations was for companies to comply with legal orders; today, he says, there’s more evidence they’re pushing back.

But all agree that one of the most enduring legacies, and the one Wizner says Snowden is most proud of, is people’s awareness of the limits of their privacy and the resulting encryption of the web.

What followed in the weeks after the stories were published has been well documented. After Greenwald introduced Snowden to Tibbo and Man, the duo hid him in the cramped tenement-style apartments of Tibbo’s Sri Lankan refugee clients, who, at great personal risk, took turns hosting the person the world was searching for. One of those families only received asylum in Canada in 2021 while others involved remain in Hong Kong. Snowden, who is facing multiple criminal charges in the US, then fled to Russia, where he still resides.

Vanessa Rodel and her daughter, who helped shelter Edward Snowden in Hong Kong.
Vanessa Rodel and her daughter, who helped shelter Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. Photograph: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

At the headquarters of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), organizers understood the NSA files could spur companies to finally implement end-to-end encryption, a method of securing communications so only the sender and recipient can access it. Very quickly after the leak, tech companies began signing on to the EFF’s efforts to push for more encryption, according to EFF executive director Cindy Cohn. In 2016, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, said that the leaks had accelerated the adoption of encryption by seven years.

While there’s still work to be done on encrypting more of the web, encryption has become the default for many messaging apps such as Signal, WhatsApp and iMessage. As a result of Snowden’s disclosures, “secure and encrypted communications are no longer the weird province of computer-savvy geeks, but are tools that are used by and available to the masses,” Wizner said.

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Ten years after Snowden first revealed himself, Fitzgerald has spent his time helping other people hold tech firms accountable through his communications firm. Today, he remains proud of the small role he played in Snowden’s story.

“In Snowden’s book, he said he put himself at the mercy of the world and other people,” Fitzgerald said. “I remember thinking in my head when I read that, I was one of those people. And I responded, and was one of the contributing factors that meant that he didn’t end up in an orange jumpsuit and wearing handcuffs.”

Johana Bhuiyan in New York

Published: 2023-06-18 14:00:45

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