Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, has been charged with espionage by the United States, according to court documents released on Friday.
The former contractor, who disclosed the existence of secret surveillance programmes to The Guardian, was charged with unauthorised communication of national defence information, communicating classified intelligence information and theft of government property.
The charges, which carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison each, could be the first step by Washington in extraditing Snowden back to the U.S. He is currently believed to be hiding in Hong Kong; the U.S. have reportedly asked Hong Kong authorities to detain Snowden, however no official response has yet been given by the former British colony.
Hong Kong authorities reportedly know where Snowden is hiding and police could pick him up, but that would only be the start of a long legal process in extraditing the whistleblower back to the U.S. However, Icelandic businessman Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, has said that he has private planes in Hong Kong on standby ready to take the 30-year-old to Iceland, a country with a history of offering political asylum to whistleblowers.
Snowden’s revelations led to investigations in the UK, with reports that GCHQ carried out similar surveillance to that of the NSA’s controversial PRISM system, which granted access to emails, texts, and Facebook messages from any computer in the country. In the UK, using such surveillance techniques is highly controversial but no illegal.
On Friday it was reported that GCHQ has secretly accessed fibre-optic cables that carry huge amounts of internet and communications data, revelations detailed in documents disclosed by Snowden.
The Guardian reported that the agency is able to tap into and store data from the cables for up to 30 days so it can be analysed under an operation codenamed Tempora. The Cheltenham-based agency would not comment on intelligence matters but insisted it was "scrupulous" in complying with the law.
Following the latest revelations, Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said that The Guardian reports "underline the need for effective parliamentary and ministerial oversight of GCHQ and our other intelligence agencies."
He added: "Whilst GCHQ do vital work to keep us all safe from harm, it is also vital that they do so with the legal framework set down by Parliament, and with proper safeguards in place to protect people's privacy. We urged the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) to look into these issues raised by the Guardian, and their work is now under way. These latest reports reinforce the urgency and importance of the ISC's work on this issue."
The newspaper said there were two principal components to the agency's surveillance programme, called Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation. It claimed the data was shared with the NSA.
The newspaper claimed Operation Tempora had been running for 18 months and GCHQ and the NSA are consequently able to access vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people, as well as targeted suspects, including phone calls, the content of email messages, Facebook entries and a user's internet history.