LONDON – National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden invoked George Orwell and warned of the dangers of unchecked government surveillance Wednesday in a televised Christmas message to the British people that reflected his growing willingness to take a public role in the debate he ignited.
Speaking directly into the camera from Moscow, where he took refuge after leaking vast troves of information on NSA spying, Snowden said government surveillance methods far surpass those described in Orwell’s dystopic novel “1984.”
“The types of collection in the book – microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us – are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” he said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”
The brief video marked Snowden’s first television appearance since he fled possible prosecution in the United States and arrived in Moscow in June. It came days after The Washington Post published an extensive account of Snowden’s comments during more than 14 hours of interviews.
Revelations from documents leaked by Snowden first appeared in June in The Post and in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and have continued to emerge in the months since.
In The Post interview, Snowden said he had succeeded in spawning the debate he sought by bringing the extent of surveillance by the U.S. and British governments to light.
“The mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
Snowden echoed those sentiments Wednesday, saying he sees an opportunity to “find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”
Snowden, a 30-year-old former NSA contractor, has been condemned by authorities in the United States and Britain for jeopardizing security on both sides of the Atlantic by divulging vital information about programs used to spy on hostile governments and would-be terrorists.
But Snowden’s documents also revealed a vast web of surveillance that targets close allies and sweeps up massive quantities of telephone, Internet and location data about ordinary citizens.
A federal judge ruled this month that NSA collection methods are probably unconstitutional, describing them as “almost Orwellian.”
In June, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with theft, unauthorized communication of national defense information and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”
Snowden, who is living under temporary asylum in Russia, had until this week kept a low profile there, referring to himself in The Post interview as an “indoor cat.”
Snowden’s video was recorded for Britain’s Channel 4, which for two decades has been broadcasting the Alternative Christmas Message – an at-times irreverent counterpoint to the queen’s traditional holiday greeting.
Previous alternative messages have been delivered by then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the cast of “The Simpsons.”
In Queen Elizabeth II’s televised message Wednesday, she reflected on a year in which she marked six decades since she took the throne, and welcomed the birth of her great-grandson, Prince George, who is third in line of succession.
“My own family is a little larger this Christmas,” the queen told Britons. “As so many of you will know, the arrival of a baby gives everyone the chance to contemplate the future with renewed happiness and hope.”