China vs. Edward Snowden?

HONG KONG — After Edward Snowden's latest interview with the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong legal experts are warning that if the National Security Agency leaker doesn't watch what he says, he may be at risk of breaking local laws.

"The new developments from the SCMP story... raise questions about whether any further leaks from Mr. Snowdon might violate Hong Kong law," says Simon Young, director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong.

In the June 12 interview, Snowden claimed that the US government had hacked into civilian institutions in China and Hong Kong since 2009. The SCMP also said he revealed documents to the newspaper that proved his claims.

Some of the civilian hack targets could have emerged from terrorism leads that Beijing or Hong Kong shared with Washington, speculates Young. "The US wouldn't target China or Hong Kong sites without intelligence, and why might it not come from governments?"

Snowden told the newspaper: "We hack network backbones—like huge internet routers, basically—that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one."

Such revelations inspired Young, the law professor, to point out certain codes of Hong Kong law that Snowden could be at risk of violating if he continues to divulge state secrets.

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"Mr. Snowden should be aware of s. 20 of the Official Secrets Ordinance (Cap. 521) if he is contemplating the disclosure of information that may have been communicated in confidence to the US government by the Chinese or Hong Kong governments," says Young in a written note.

"For example, it might be possible that any surveillance activities that took place in Hong Kong arose as a result of information provided confidentially by the Chinese or Hong Kong governments. Section 20 deals with information relating to 'security or intelligence, defense or international relations' communicated in confidence to foreign states by the Central People's Government or the Hong Kong Government.

"It is an offence for someone to come into possession of such information (without the authority of the foreign state) and to make a 'damaging disclosure' of it 'knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe' that the information was communicated in confidence and the disclosure would be damaging."

Young concludes by saying that "these recent developments underline the importance of Mr. Snowden obtaining immediate legal advice in Hong Kong, especially before any further disclosures are made."

Snowden's latest revelations set off a stir in the Chinese media, which has until now stayed mostly silent on the NSA leaks. On Thursday the state-run People's Daily wrote that the case is "certain to stain Washington's image and test developing Sino-US ties."