MY TAKE: Snowden makes valid points on the impact of unconstrained mass surveillance programs

By Byron V. Acohido

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 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

The 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.

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.”

This article also appeared in

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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