Snowden shares views on privacy, surveillance at Privacy XChange Forum

Mass surveillance programs to collect data ineffective, unconstitutional, still allow terrorism, whistle-blower argues

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Watching a larg­er-than-life Edward Snow­den con­verse, in real time, with IDT911 Chief Pri­va­cy Offi­cer Eduard Good­man at Boul­ders Resort here this week was a rare privilege.

Many in the audi­ence of some 250 atten­dees of IDT911’s Pri­va­cy XChange Forum 2016 shared my sense that we were wit­ness­ing his­to­ry in the mak­ing. Here was a young Amer­i­can, exiled for now in Rus­sia, com­par­ing him­self to Pen­ta­gon Papers whis­tle-blow­er Daniel Ells­berg, thought­ful­ly explain­ing his views on pri­va­cy and mass sur­veil­lance, and sub­tly lay­ing ground­work for a hoped-for return to his homeland—on his terms.

What­ev­er hap­pens to Snow­den from here on out, and whether you believe Snow­den is a patri­ot or a trai­tor, there is no doubt he is a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who riv­et­ed glob­al atten­tion on indi­vid­ual pri­va­cy and data secu­ri­ty at a time when pow­er­ful forces are mov­ing to reshape our long-held def­i­n­i­tions of human rights.

Relat­ed: Russ­ian cyber spies assist in Ukraine occupation

That Snow­den was able to appear at IDT911’s pri­va­cy con­fer­ence via a Google Plus Hang­out video chat ses­sion, blown up on two mas­sive screens, with near­ly imper­cep­ti­ble lag, was an iron­ic won­der. (Full dis­clo­sure: IDT911 spon­sors

Most peo­ple don’t real­ize that Google may be the largest com­put­er hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­er on the plan­et. And it has just one client: Google. It’s gar­gan­tu­an, pro­pri­etary data cen­ters whip out answers to our search queries in the blink of an eye, and sup­ply cool cloud ser­vices, like its globe-span­ning video chat chan­nel, for free.

The irony stems from the fact that Google’s data cen­ters, and oth­ers like them used by Face­book, Apple, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft, are the engines behind the vora­cious hoover­ing of online com­mu­ni­ca­tions of every Inter­net user—the very data the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency has used to con­duct mass sur­veil­lance on ordi­nary cit­i­zens, which we nev­er would have known about with­out Snowden’s whistle-blowing.Snowden_tech_400

Snow­den spent more than an hour drilling down on his ratio­nale for hand­ing over thou­sands of clas­si­fied NSA doc­u­ments to jour­nal­ists Glenn Green­wald, Lau­ra Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, as well as shar­ing his cur­rent think­ing. Here are excerpts of what he had to say:

‘Gold­en Age’ of surveillance

The U.S. is sec­ond to none when it comes to sur­veil­lance. You see intel­li­gence offi­cials, law enforce­ment offi­cials, like James Comey, the direc­tor of the FBI, every so often go out on Capi­tol Hill in an inter­view, and they go, ‘Oh, you know we’re going dark. … Our capa­bil­i­ties are very frag­ile.’ And this is some­thing they’ve been say­ing for 20 years. But if you look at their actu­al clas­si­fied doc­u­ments, which have been pub­lished, they say they’ve been liv­ing in the Gold­en Age of surveillance.

This is very much a true state­ment. Sur­veil­lance his­tor­i­cal­ly has been extreme­ly cost­ly and extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. You had to have teams of indi­vid­u­als who fol­lowed some­body 24 hours a day. You had to break into their home; you had to place lis­ten­ing devices on the adja­cent wall in their neighbor’s apart­ment, and plant cam­eras. You had to do all kinds of things. It was a very tax­ing task.

Today rather than hav­ing teams of peo­ple fol­low­ing one guy, you can have one guy fol­low­ing teams of peo­ple. Sur­veil­lance has become cheap­er, more acces­si­ble by orders of mag­ni­tude. At the same time, our struc­tures of over­sight have declined.

The Unit­ed States is ahead of every­body else when it comes to sur­veil­lance because we fund it bet­ter. Again, we are an eco­nom­ic pow­er­house. We are the world’s most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary, bar none. And this has syn­er­gies with surveillance.”

 Europe fol­lows NSA’s lead

Many of these Euro­pean states, and oth­er states around them, would very much have liked to be doing the same things. Some of them have a bet­ter moral posi­tion­ing, some of them have bet­ter legal frame­works, some of them do have a bet­ter respect for indi­vid­ual rights.

But what they didn’t have was the capa­bil­i­ty. Even very well-resourced, very sophis­ti­cat­ed espi­onage actors, such as France, were ter­ri­ble when it came to par­a­digms, such as mass sur­veil­lance. And because they didn’t have a pre-exist­ing tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ty, paired with the polit­i­cal will, which remem­ber, in the Unit­ed States this was pro­vid­ed as the result of a high-impact polit­i­cal event, in this case 911, when the gloves came off and lit­er­al­ly any­thing could be jus­ti­fied, includ­ing tor­ture, ren­di­tion, extra-judi­cial killings, as long as you attached it to the word ‘ter­ror­ism.’ These oth­er states couldn’t achieve the nec­es­sary momen­tum to get this.

Now the U.S. has, unfor­tu­nate­ly, bro­ken the taboo on this behav­ior, and actu­al­ly pres­sured many of these Euro­pean states to adopt the same poli­cies for twofold pur­pos­es. One, for legal cov­er, it makes their actions jus­ti­fi­able, if they can say, ‘This is part of a broad intel­li­gence coali­tion, we all do this.’ And, two, because it’s like trad­ing base­ball cards. They (U.S.) say (to Europe,) ‘You guys have access to com­mu­ni­ca­tions that are tran­sit­ing your ter­res­tri­al ter­ri­to­ry,’ cables buried in the ground, satel­lite hops that are bypass­ing their coun­try, ‘And we have some of the same things that you can’t see, so if we trade, we all see more of the pie.’ That cre­ates that kind of (mass sur­veil­lance) paradigm.”

Con­sti­tu­tion­al surveillance

Snowden_XChange forum_400The issue here is not sur­veil­lance. I have nev­er said we need to shut down our sur­veil­lance net­works, I have nev­er said we shouldn’t be engag­ing in this at all. We need sur­veil­lance. But what we need is law­ful, con­sti­tu­tion­al sur­veil­lance that is nec­es­sary to the pro­por­tion of the threat pre­sent­ed, in indi­vid­u­al­ized cases.

Now that sounds abstract and legal­is­tic, but what does that actu­al­ly mean? It means tar­get­ed sur­veil­lance. Again, the issue that we had, in the post-911 world, was that we sud­den­ly had a tech­no­log­i­cal advance that meant new things were pos­si­ble. And we had a col­lapse in our polit­i­cal struc­ture. In a moment of cri­sis, that meant any­thing that could pos­si­bly be autho­rized, would be autho­rized. So we autho­rized uncon­sti­tu­tion­al activ­i­ties. But what made them uncon­sti­tu­tion­al? It was the indis­crim­i­nate nature of them. It was the fact that we start­ed col­lect­ing it all, as they say. This is sort of an intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty slo­gan. Instead of sim­ply col­lect­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of sus­pects, they col­lect the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of sus­pects and nonsuspects.

And not only did this not achieve our goals, peo­ple for­get that these mass sur­veil­lance pro­grams were not effec­tive. Ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties were hap­pen­ing then, slip­ping through the net, and they’re still hap­pen­ing, where intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties were tipped about par­tic­u­lar individuals.

We were warned about the Boston bombers before they act­ed. We were warned about the Brus­sels bombers before they act­ed. And in both cas­es mass sur­veil­lance didn’t save us. Why is that? You might pre­sume if we have these sys­tems col­lect­ing every­thing on every­one, we should cer­tain­ly be catch­ing these things right?

Wrong, unfor­tu­nate­ly. And this is why we have the president’s review group. The deputy direc­tor of the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency found that these pro­grams aren’t effec­tive, and it was that we are col­lect­ing too much. Ulti­mate­ly a human being, some­body, has to go to the desk in Hawaii and sit down and look at that giant ocean of data. And if we are drown­ing in noise, we miss the parts that are actu­al­ly important.

One of the defens­es for this par­a­digm of col­lec­tion is we are look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack. Well what these pro­grams are actu­al­ly doing is build­ing a haystack of human lives that is so broad and so deep, that nee­dles will nev­er be found. You’ll find hay that looks a lot like a nee­dle because there’s so much of it, and it’s so dif­fer­ent, but isn’t one. And the nee­dles can actu­al­ly escape unno­ticed because of that.”

Less free’ society

 “This is what we need to remem­ber. By watch­ing more peo­ple, by being less respect­ful of rights, we are not only mak­ing our agen­cies less effec­tive, we are also mak­ing our soci­eties less free. We are ced­ing a moral high ground that we held through­out the Cold War, through­out World War II, where we could point to our adver­saries and go, ‘Hey those guys behind the Iron Cur­tain, those guys behind the Berlin Wall, they’ve got the Stasi, they’ve got the KGB, they’re doing all of this heinous stuff. We don’t do that. Not because we can’t, but because we don’t believe in it.’

This is not to say the NSA is the Stasi, of course they’re not. In fact, they’re far more capa­ble than the Stasi, but clear­ly their val­ues are dif­fer­ent. The NSA is not full of vil­lains. I don’t think that. I worked there. I know many of these peo­ple, at the work­ing lev­el, are very good peo­ple. They’re good peo­ple doing bad things for what they believe is good rea­son. The prob­lem is it’s not effec­tive. We know it’s not effective.Snowden_feed_400

And by work­ing togeth­er, by rec­og­niz­ing that there are real threats, and focus­ing on what those are, hint, hint, that com­put­er secu­ri­ty prob­lem, that lack of pur­pose­ful defense, we’re see­ing so reg­u­lar­ly and so pub­licly in this elec­tion sea­son, if we fix that, we will do a much greater ser­vice to the pub­lic than 100 years of mass surveillance.”

Com­ing home

There is a par­don cam­paign that’s going on right now, it’s actu­al­ly run by the world’s three lead­ing human rights orga­ni­za­tions, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. They’re say­ing, ‘Barack Oba­ma, on the basis of every­thing that hap­pened, would be serv­ing the pub­lic inter­est in doing this.’

I’m not going to take a posi­tion on that, I will repeat what I have said for the past three years. Ever since I came for­ward, I’ve actu­al­ly only had one demand for com­ing home and fac­ing a tri­al in the Unit­ed States, putting aside any kind of clemen­cy, or any­thing like that.

The con­di­tion was this: They would have to guar­an­tee, pub­licly, a fair tri­al, (in which) I would be able to argue to the jury, with­out objec­tion from the pros­e­cu­tion, that I could tell them why I did it.

The gov­ern­ment was very par­tic­u­lar in how they struc­tured the charges against me. Despite the fact that I’d nev­er worked for a for­eign gov­ern­ment, despite the fact that I nev­er sold any­thing, they charged me under the Espi­onage Act that is intend­ed to be used against actu­al spies, agents of for­eign pow­ers. This has been used under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, unfor­tu­nate­ly, against jour­nal­is­tic sources, whis­tle-blow­ers and peo­ple work­ing, not for per­son­al ben­e­fit, not for any mon­e­tary gain, but to serve the pub­lic good, more times than all oth­er admin­is­tra­tions combined.

So I said, ‘Hey, if you guys will let me come to court, and tell the jury why I did what I did, I’ll come back and do that.’ And they coun­terof­fered with a let­ter writ­ten by the attor­ney gen­er­al, that said, ‘We promise that we will not tor­ture you.’ So we’ve start­ed, but there’s still a lit­tle progress to be made, before we get to a fair trial.”

More on Snow­den and surveillance:
Snow­den hack left last­ing impact on data secu­ri­ty practices
More Amer­i­cans liv­ing under cloud of ‘data insecurity’
Five things all orga­ni­za­tions should know about ‘hack­tivism’


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