Edward Snowden on Why We Must Protect our Privacy
It's Not About Having Something to Hide; It's About Having Something to Lose
In November 2015, PEN America released a report that examines the scant protections for whistleblowers working in United States intelligence organizations. To mark its publication, we hosted a forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Executive director of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, interviewed former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden via Skype. Whistleblowers Thomas Drake, former senior executive at the NSA, Jesselyn Radack of WHISPeR, the Whistleblower & Source Protection Program of ExposeFacts, and New York Times reporter James Risen shared their stories.
Katy Glenn Bass, deputy director of PEN America’s Free Expression Program, introduced the event:
PEN’s report shows that the gaps in existing protections for intelligence community whistleblowers, the government’s failure to adequately address retaliation against them, and the Obama Administration’s aggressive prosecution of leakers under the Espionage Act, are damaging to freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information in the United States. The combined impact of these elements has created a chilling effect on free expression, and affects both the willingness of government workers to expose wrongdoing and the ability of journalists to cover their revelations. This poses serious risks for the free flow of information and informed public debate that is necessary for a healthy democratic society.
The following transcripts are adapted from the evening’s conversations.
SUZANNE NOSSEL: While Americans treasure the idea of free speech and lionize individuals who stand up to authority, there is a deep skittishness when it comes to whistleblowers. They make people nervous. Why do you think that is?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: I don’t think it’s a huge mystery, given that the government and the press in our country have extremely tight relations. A lot of media will print allegations rather than facts, whereas whistleblowers are required to present evidence on behalf of our claims. Whenever wrongdoing is revealed—whether it’s warrantless wiretapping in the Bush Administration, lies in the Vietnam War, or the lead-up to Iraq and the way intelligence was doctored—when it’s an unofficial leak, we immediately get a cohort of authorized leakers saying, “This is harmful, this is dangerous, it’s going to cost lives, it’s going to reduce the level of safety in our society.” No one ever challenges them to show facts; they become persuasive simply because we say, “These are people in positions of authority; these are serious people. If the media is giving them this level of deference, perhaps we should as well.”
But they don’t want to talk about the concrete harms of bad policy. They don’t want to declassify a particular program; they don’t want us to know what’s going on. As soon as anybody has to justify their position in terms of our current modern political culture, they’re losing. I think that’s really why, by proxy, the public is uncomfortable. Politicians become uncomfortable anytime they have to justify why they’re doing what they’re doing.
When you look at this as an engineer, which is sort of natural to me, you think about it in terms of game theory. What is the optimal strategy for your side, for your tribe, whatever that is? If you’re a newspaper, if you’ve got to scoop things to survive, and the opposition has a big story but you don’t, you look for your angle. Traditionally there would be follow-on reporting, other journalists would chase new leads, but this has become difficult in the national security context. Nobody wants to talk to journalists anymore, they realize it’s the kiss of death for their career and could expose them to legal charges, and so journalists naturally and understandably go, “Well, what can we report on? Well, we can go after the whistleblower. Who could it be? What does the document imply about them? What could their motivations be?”
Even if journalists get the Pulitzer Prize-winning story showing that officials broke the law, they’re going to lose access as a result. Bridges will be burned within the administration, or officials will start feeding stories to competitors. It’s traditional in our society for the press to become adversarial to the government in a contest for public information, but unfortunately and increasingly, particularly under this administration, the government is becoming adversarial to the press. And that’s quite dangerous.
NOSSEL: Do whistleblowers’ motives matter? Assuming their disclosures meet the criteria of whistleblowing and advance the public interest, does that person deserve protection regardless of motive?
SNOWDEN: If they’ve revealed wrongdoing, that’s really all that matters. If somebody works for an organized crime group, that doesn’t have any bearing on what we do with the information they give and what it means to us, provided we can determine it’s factually correct.
NOSSEL: We know you’re not in Russia by choice, that your options were severely limited, that you’ve also been critical of the Russian government for human rights and freedom of expression violations. At the same time, Masha Gessen, one of our trustees at PEN America, commented during your early days in Russia, when you met with human rights groups at the Moscow airport, that the Russian propaganda machine had not gotten so much mileage out of a U.S. citizen since Angela Davis’s murder trial in 1971. I think there still is a sense among some Russian dissidents that your position is unhelpful to their cause. How do you respond to that?
SNOWDEN: That’s a mistake. They’re trying to argue, basically, that one individual is responsible for the bad actions of another. This is the same as critics who say I caused tech companies to lose sales. We know that’s not true. No one’s going to be surprised if the Russian government or the Chinese government or any other irresponsible government that is against free and open and unregulated communication on the internet uses something like this to their advantage.
The fault here also lies with the U.S. government, which actively blocked my ability to leave Russia. I applied for asylum in twenty-one countries, and many of them actually seemed favorable in response—but, for example, when Ecuador seemed to be leaning toward saying, “Yes, we’re going to allow him to come here,” Vice President Joe Biden called the president of Ecuador directly. When the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, made some joke about considering granting me asylum so I could leave Russia, his plane was grounded on the orders of the president of the United States. The airspace of France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy was closed (a violation of international law), and they grounded his plane.
Where is the line between prosecution and persecution? I would argue that line becomes quite bright and quite clear when you start grounding the diplomatic flights of heads of state on their equivalent of Air Force One. If that happened to the president of the United States, it would be seen as casus belli.
NOSSEL: A couple of weeks ago, there was a vote in the European Parliament against extradition for you, a new sign of support. Might that mean at some point soon you could trade your home in Russia for one in Paris?
SNOWDEN: We’ll see how that goes. I do think it’s pretty extraordinary to see such a wide body, the Parliament of the European Union, saying the U.S. position on this issue is mistaken. They’re actually doing what I believe is a friendly action, and a proper action. There is a growing consensus that in 2013, the U.S. government could make the argument that these disclosures would be dangerous, that they could cause harm, that maybe terrorists were going to take over, that the sky was going to fall, but it’s 2015 now, and the directors of the CIA, the DIA, the NSA, the FBI, and so on have testified. They’ve all been begged by my largest critics in Congress, “Show us any evidence, any case where anybody has come to harm as a result of these disclosures,” and they never have.
NOSSEL: Your colleagues had one agenda one purpose and you had another. When people weigh up your case, one of the things they think about is your colleagues. It’s said you had to obtain passwords or other information from them without their knowledge.
SNOWDEN: That’s not true.
NOSSEL: I’m curious about your relationship with your peers and whether you think they understand what you did, what you would say to them now, or if you have spoken with them since then.
SNOWDEN: I can’t comment on whether or not I’ve spoken with anybody. That would obviously be a profoundly negative thing for them. What I can say is that I think a number of my colleagues would understand and approve of the choices that I made and the results. The people at the working level at NSA are not bad guys. They aren’t criminals. They aren’t people trying to get over on anything, and they aren’t people trying to cause harm. They are patriotic people who want to do the right thing. They recognize that they do break laws here and there, but typically they’re thinking about international laws or some foreign government’s laws. They like to think that they’re upholding the Constitution.
Many of them didn’t even know what was going on. Even people who had top secret clearance didn’t know about the warrantless wiretapping program. You have increasingly restricted circles within the intelligence community, where you can’t see into this silo or that silo. What was special about me was I had a special clearance called PRIVAC, which meant I could see across silos. I saw the big picture. When I connected the dots and I showed it to colleagues, they became extremely concerned.
NOSSEL: Certainly we’ve seen diversity of opinion on whether it was a good idea to make the disclosures you made, and I would guess some colleagues said that doing so went strongly against their grain as loyal government employees. How do you think about those people now? Do you think they’ve changed their minds?
SNOWDEN: I used to keep a copy of the Constitution on my desk at the NSA in Hawaii, and I would talk to my co-workers about it, particularly as I thought more and more about these issues, and I gave copies to some of them, and we would talk. Some people would really think about it, some people would be concerned, but there were others who said, “The Constitution is just a piece of paper. It doesn’t really matter. Bottom line, we have a job to do.” Particularly when we’re talking about topics like extraordinary rendition. I remember one conversation quite well: A co-worker said, “Guantánamo is a giant waste of time. If we had been doing it the right way, we would have simply kicked them out of the airplane as they were crossing the Atlantic, and then we wouldn’t be dealing with this problem.”T hat guy’s mind probably hasn’t changed.
NOSSEL: Let’s say your lawyers succeed in striking a plea deal, and you’re able to come back to the United States. Fast forward five or ten years. What are you focused on, what does your life look like?
SNOWDEN: Right now I spend almost all of my time coordinating to solve really tough technical problems in terms of how we enforce the protection of our rights, the privacy of our communications, either with academics or technologists or engineers, increasingly at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. A lot of individuals in a lot of different countries think that mass surveillance is a bad idea. They don’t think that bulk collection is effective or that it keeps us safe. This is a fact: It doesn’t keep us safe, it doesn’t save lives, it doesn’t prevent terrorist attacks. For example, the telephonic metadata program under Section 215 was warrantlessly intercepting phone calls of more or less everyone in the United States for a period of more than ten years. Not only did it never stop a single terrorist attack in the United States, it didn’t make a concrete difference in a single investigation.
The Boston Marathon bombings in the United States, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the attacks in Sydney, the Canadian Parliament attacks— all of these attackers were known to intelligence services beforehand.
NOSSEL: I take it you’d stay with this fight, that you’re saying this is, perhaps, the fight of your life. But if you were back here, would you be in Silicon Valley, developing the next generation of encryption tools? Would you be out in the streets with a bullhorn, trying to engage the public on these issues? Would you be testifying in front of Congress? Where would you situate yourself in society if you had the opportunity to come back and wage this effort from within?
SNOWDEN: I was never a very public person before 2013. A lot of computer guys are like that; they keep to themselves, they work online, they write, they design, they engineer, but they aren’t so good at being out on the streets. I’m not a politician and I don’t want to be, but a lot of advocacy organizations and worthy movements have asked me to participate, and so I am spending more time on that. When it comes to the question of where I would live, what would I do, would it be different, I think it wouldn’t be much different than today. You know, people say I live in Russia, but that’s actually a misunderstanding. I live on the internet. That’s where I spend all of my time, that’s where all of my work is seen, and one of the most beautiful things about the last two years is it shows that you don’t have to be in some specific spot. You don’t have to be in San Francisco. Even when your government is pursuing a policy of exile, you can be everywhere and anywhere. That is powerful and liberating, and I think that will be one of the most important lessons learned as aresult of the disclosures of 2013. You can’t shut people up the way you used to be able to.
NOSSEL: When we think about surveillance, we think about literature as maybe the most authoritative source about the harms of the surveillance state: Kafka, Huxley, Orwell. Have those books influenced you?
SNOWDEN: I think they have. Of course I’ve read Huxley, I’ve read Orwell. When we think about this—and this perhaps may not be so popular with PEN, but…
NOSSEL: Watch out.
SNOWDEN: [laughs] Literature to me is more about a writing culture than about what’s bound between two covers. And there is a writing culture, a literary culture that is growing on the internet by the day. Yes, the long-form traditional novel has an influence, it has a space to make an argument that you don’t get in the typical back and forth of the internet, but I think it’s not helpful to give space to the idea that the internet and traditional print are in opposition to each other. I think it’s an evolution as we develop new tools. Just as the printing press meant that we shared books and ideas more broadly than when each book was handwritten and an incredibly precious object, the internet is providing a reach for ideas that aren’t necessarily able to attain the attention of a well-known reviewer at The New York Times.
AUDIENCE: By your own estimations, in what ways have you been both an effective and a less than ideal messenger for the causes of civil liberties and digital privacy?
SNOWDEN: I think the fact that I have a face is problematic. Ideally, nobody would know who I am. The anonymous whistleblower is the one who’s able to force the most focus on the issues. At the same time, had I done that, it would have set off an extraordinary witch hunt. People would have been unfairly implicated as aiding and abetting; they could have suffered legal liability. Revealing myself helped keep focus on the fact that this was real. But it also allowed the media to focus on me.
NOSSEL: Let’s stipulate that there was going to be a face at the forefront of this campaign. My question is trying to get at the fact that it’s your face, it’s you, it’s your line of thinking, your reasoning, your personality, and how you think that has played out in shaping the effectiveness of your message.
SNOWDEN: The fact that I don’t really like to embrace the media, I don’t like the story to be about me, makes me a less than ideal messenger because, as we discussed earlier, the government sort of owns all the Sunday shows, and if you wind the clock back to June 2013, every Sunday they had a parade of officials who would be out there and they’d mislead the public in concrete ways that I could have quite easily disproved, and shown that these were misdirections. Intentional mendacity. But I felt that this would make it more about me. Maybe I was overcautious; I tried to back out of it and let there be some other face. Let somebody else come and argue these issues. But the result was a vacuum where they smeared my character repeatedly for a number of months (it’s still going on, but on a much lower level). If there had been a different person in my shoes who made the same decision but had a different personality, who was a little more media-hungry, who wanted to engage, to go talk to George Stephanopoulos, they would have been more effective in pushing back, they could have more quickly corrected the record when officials made false statements in defense of these programs.
NOSSEL: Given how motivated you are, why not overcome your natural reservations and go mix it up with George Stephanopoulos?
SNOWDEN: I think it comes down to personality. You’re asking why I didn’t become a long jumper instead of an engineer. Sure, in hindsight I can say maybe I should have done this, maybe I should have done that, but on balance, when I look back at things, I think it worked out really well. It did benefit the public in a clear, broad way, and if I had to go back and do it again, I’m not sure that I would change things.
NOSSEL: You painted a pretty optimistic picture of how things are going in terms of surveillance reform and the momentum that you see to address the changes that you’re concerned about. You ground a good part of that in the technical fixes that you think will protect privacy even if legislation won’t. But I wonder about the 2016 election, and what you think of the candidates’ views on surveillance.
SNOWDEN: When he was elected, Obama could have said, “This surveillance program is a fundamental violation of rights—I’m against that. I don’t care how you structure it, monitoring absolutely everyone in the nation without regard to criminal suspicion, without regard to any individual wrongdoing whatsoever, is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and it’s a violation of our human rights. That’s not how we should be as people, that’s not how we should be as Americans.” Had Obama done that, he would have gotten moral applause. But as soon as there was any low-level terrorist attack or noteworthy criminal event, his political opponents would have said it was because of this decision.
We have to move away from the politics of fear that has enveloped our country for the last decade or more, and move into a post-terror generation: the politics of resilience. There will be crimes, there will be terrorist attacks; we will punish the wicked, but we will not elevate stability above liberty.
AUDIENCE: I wonder what you say to the many Americans who feel, “If my information is washed up in an enormous sea with hundreds and millions and billions of other records, I’m actually okay with that.” Our sense of privacy and the acceptable level of government intrusion has been recalibrated, reset by the internet, by mobile, by your revelations. Even if we don’t want to live in a security state, even if we want to move beyond a War on Terror paradigm, there may be a sense in which the American public has decided, “We can live with a lot of this.”
SNOWDEN: I think that’s changing. When we look at polls, we see that argument is becoming radically less persuasive than it was ten years ago. Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. It’s not really about having something to hide, it’s about having something to lose. When we’re talking about rights, we’re talking about relative power within society. These people do not realize, necessarily, consciously, what they’re arguing about, because it’s an abstract idea, and they’re making an emotional argument without following it to its logical conclusion. They’re saying it’s okay for a government or other institution to have total power in society. Mass surveillance is a totalitarian power by definition. It monitors everybody’s private communications, everybody’s private records, their private lives in society. We don’t let federal agents have a tour our home when we leave for work every day simply because it would give them an advantage in investigating crimes. Of course it would. They would find evidence of drugs, of fraud, of tax evasion, whatnot, if they had the power to go through everything. In the digital realm, because it is invisible, it’s very difficult to demonstrate wrongdoing, and to hold violators to account. The NSA’s own records show they violate law or policies thousands of times in a single calendar year. Even if these policies are implemented by well-meaning people, they will not only be abused, they will be dangerous. If people do agree that we should embrace mass surveillance, that they don’t care about the right to be left alone, that decision is fundamentally public in nature. The problem, revealed in 2013, was that this decision had been made for us, without our knowledge, without our consent. The programs had been put in place in secret and were being used against us, and in our name.
These policies are not passive. They’re invisible, they’re constant, these are things that are monitoring you all the time. People say, “It’s just metadata, it’s getting a copy of your phone records and getting an itemized phone bill.” That’s not at all what it’s like. It’s a record of every book you’ve ever opened, every library you’ve ever visited, every home you’ve ever visited, every person you’ve ever talked to, every cellphone tower you’ve ever passed, every method of transportation you’ve used. It is a perfect record of every private life. That is what metadata reveals, that is what bulk collection or mass surveillance produces. Ultimately, it’s not really about surveillance. It’s about the balance of power within society. It’s about whether we, the private citizens, stay protected. The government is not supposed to know a lot about us. That’s why we’re called private citizens. Public officials are supposed to be transparent: We’re supposed to know a lot about them because they wield privilege, influence, and power to the most extreme degree within society. Privacy is intended not for these people; privacy is for the powerless. And if we do not protect it, we will not have it.