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Snowden Q&A: Indiscriminate mass surveillance is the biggest problem we face

Published time: January 23, 2014 20:31
Edited time: January 24, 2014 04:26
Edward Snowden.(AFP Photo / Wikileaks)

Edward Snowden.(AFP Photo / Wikileaks)

For only the second time since he revealed himself to be the source of leaked top-secret documents last June, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden answered questions from the public at large on Thursday.

Snowden, 30, has only sparingly conducted interviews with the media since he admitted more than seven months ago to taking a trove of classified files from the United States National Security Agency, or NSA, the likes of which have been published continuously by the international press and have sparked debates about government surveillance around the globe.

That discussion continued on Thursday this week when Snowden said during a question-and-answer session that the bulk and indiscriminate collection of personal information as waged by the US intelligence community and its allies is in need of serious reform, as are the whistleblower protection laws that he says wouldn’t have helped shield him from prosecution had he not fled the country: Snowden was charged with espionage and theft by the US Department of Justice for leaking those state secrets, and for half-a-year now has been confined to Russia after being granted temporary asylum last August.

Snowden on the perils of mass surveillance

"Not all spying is bad. The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day. This is done not because it’s necessary — after all, these programs are unprecedented in US history, and were begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers — but because new technologies make it easy and cheap."

"This is a global problem, and America needs to take the lead in fixing it. If our government decides our Constitution’s 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures no longer applies simply because that’s a more efficient means of snooping, we’re setting a precedent that immunizes the government of every two-bit dictator to perform the same kind of indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance of entire populations that the NSA is doing."

Later, Snowden added:

"The worst and happening-right-now harm of bulk collection — which again, is a euphemism for mass surveillance — is two-fold.

The first is the chilling effect, which is well-understood. Study after study has show that human behavior changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively *are* less free.

The second, less understood but far more sinister effect of these classified programs, is that they effectively create 'permanent records' of our daily activities, even in the absence of any wrongdoing on our part. This enables a capability called 'retroactive investigation,' where once you come to the government’s attention, they’ve got a very complete record of your daily activity going back, under current law, often as far as five years. You might not remember where you went to dinner on June 12th 2009, but the government does."

Snowden on why he had to flee the US to reveal NSA surveillance programs

"One of the things that has not been widely reported by journalists is that whistleblower protection laws in the US do not protect contractors in the national security arena. There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective that they appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing. If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony. One only need to look at the case of Thomas Drake to see how the government doesn’t have a good history of handling legitimate reports of wrongdoing within the system.

Despite this, and despite the fact that I could not legally go to the official channels that direct NSA employees have available to them, I still made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen. The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom to go to through what Drake did.

My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive whistleblower protection act reform. If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the President seems to agree needed to be done."

Snowden on the prospect of coming back to the US and standing trial

"Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself.

The hundred-year old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, and forbids a public interest defense. This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury.

Maybe when Congress comes together to end the programs the PCLOB just announced was illegal, they’ll reform the Whistleblower Protection Act, and we’ll see a mechanism for all Americans, no matter who they work for, to get a fair trial."

Snowden on how to protect privacy

"As I’ve said before, properly implemented strong encryption works. What you have to worry about are the endpoints. If someone can steal you keys (or the pre-encryption plaintext), no amount of cryptography will protect you.

However, that doesn’t mean end-to-end crypto is a lost cause. By combining robust endpoint security with transport security, people can have much greater confidence in their day to day communications."

Mr. Snowden last took questions en masse from the public on June 17, 2013, barely a week after the first news articles were published based off of NSA documents he disclosed to show evidence of vast surveillance operations waged by the US government. His remarks this week came just six days after US President Barack Obama announced plans to reform some of the spy programs exposed through Mr. Snowden's leaks.