The Guardian interview’s Edward Snowden a year after whistle-blowing:
On his arrival, there is a warm handshake for Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, whom he last saw in Hong Kong – a Sunday night after a week of intense work in a frowsty hotel room, a few hours before the video revealing his identity to the world went public. Neither man knew if they would ever meet again.
What about the accusation that his leaks have caused untold damage to the intelligence capabilities of the west? “The fact that people know communications can be monitored does not stop people from communicating [digitally]. Because the only choices are to accept the risk, or to not communicate at all,” he says, almost weary at having to spell out what he considers self-evident.
“And when we’re talking about things like terrorist cells, nuclear proliferators – these are organised cells. These are things an individual cannot do on their own. So if they abstain from communicating, we’ve already won. If we’ve basically talked the terrorists out of using our modern communications networks, we have benefited in terms of security – we haven’t lost.”
Why not let the agencies collect the haystacks of data so they can look for the needles within?
Snowden doesn’t like the haystack metaphor, used exhaustively by politicians and intelligence chiefs in defense of mass data collections. “I would argue that simply using the term ‘haystack’ is misleading. This is a haystack of human lives. It’s all the private records of the most intimate activities, that are aggregated and compiled again and again, and stored for increasing frequencies of time.
“It may be that by watching everywhere we go, by watching everything we do, by analyzing every word we say, by waiting and passing judgment over every association we make and every person we love, that we could uncover a terrorist plot, or we could discover more criminals. But is that the kind of society we want to live in? That is the definition of a security state.”
When did he last read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? “Actually, quite some time ago. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think we are exactly in that universe. The danger is that we can see how [Orwell’s] technologies now seem unimaginative and quaint. They talked about things like microphones implanted in bushes and cameras in TVs that look back at us. But now we’ve got webcams that go with us everywhere. We actually buy cellphones that are the equivalent of a network microphone that we carry around in our pockets voluntarily. Times have shown that the world is much more unpredictable and dangerous [than Orwell imagined].”
There was a moment when he and, he says, other colleagues began to have severe doubts about the ethics of what they were doing.
Can he give an example of what made him feel uneasy? “Many of the people searching through the haystacks were young, enlisted guys, 18 to 22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility, where they now have access to all your private records. In the course of their daily work, they stumble across something that is completely unrelated in any sort of necessary sense – for example, an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation. But they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show a co-worker. And their co-worker says, ‘Oh, hey, that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way’, and then Bill sends it to George, George sends it to Tom, and sooner or later this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people.”
The analysts don’t discuss such things in the NSA cafeterias, but back in the office “anything goes, more or less. You’re in a vaulted space. Everybody has sort of similar clearances, everybody knows everybody. It’s a small world. It’s never reported, because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak. The fact that records of your intimate moments have been taken from your private communication stream, from the intended recipient, and given to the government, without any specific authorisation, without any specific need, is itself a violation of your rights. Why is that in the government database?”
How often do such things happen? “I’d say probably every two months. It’s routine enough. These are seen as sort of the fringe benefits of surveillance positions.”
And the auditing is really not good enough to pick up such abuses? “A 29-year-old walked in and out of the NSA with all of their private records,” he shoots back. “What does that say about their auditing? They didn’t even know.”
He emphasises that his co-workers were not “moustache-twirling villains” but “people like you and me”. Still, most colleagues, even if they felt doubts, would not complain, having seen the fate of previous whistleblowers, who ended up vilified and “pulled out of the shower at gunpoint, naked, in front of their families. We all have mortgages. We all have families.”
What people often overlook is the fact that, when you build a back door into a communication system, that back door can be discovered by anyone around the world. That can be a private individual or a security researcher at a university, but it can also be a criminal group or a foreign intelligence agency – say, the NSA’s equivalent in a deeply irresponsible government. And now that foreign country can scrutinise not just your bank records, but your private communications all around the internet.”
[B]e particularly conscious about any sort of network signalling; any sort of connection; any sort of licence plate-reading device that they pass on their way to a meeting point; any place they use their credit card; any place they take their phone; any email contact they have with the source. Because that very first contact, before encrypted communications are established, is enough to give it all away.” To journalists, he would add “lawyers, doctors, investigators, possibly even accountants. Anyone who has an obligation to protect the privacy of their clients is facing a new and challenging world.”