Edward Snowden: Surveillance Is about Power
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says government surveillance is taking away our privacy AND our security. Click to watch his full speech.
- Snowden: Democracy Under Surveillance (lecture): To hear more insights from Edward Snowden, check out the full lecture Democracy Under Surveillance: A Conversation with Edward Snowden.
- NSA Surveillance Debate: Cindy Cohn vs Ronald Sievert (debate): Prof. Ronald Sievert of Texas A+M and Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation debate government data collection and the tradeoff between privacy, liberty, and security.
- Hacking the Future (video): Nico Sell, founder of Wickr Foundation, explains why we should change our perception of hackers, from sinister antagonists to invaluable assets.
Edward Snowden: Well when you live in a world of terrorists and mad men, when every bad thing that happens on every corner of the earth is in your living room by the end of the day, a world where your nearest neighbor is potentially a foreign enemy, rights begin to look like a vulnerability.
We’re going to be talking about surveillance in our lives. This means we’re going to be talking about power. Whether we’re talking about Facebook determining what ads you see, or something rather more concrete, information today is a convenient means, it’s a mechanism for attaining a certain power, and that power today is control.
Surveillance technologies have outpaced democratic controls. A generation ago, surveillance was extremely expensive. There was a natural limitation imposed upon it. That is, the governments had to spend huge, extraordinary sums to track lone, isolated individuals. To know a particular person’s location, might involve many teams of officers, both in buildings and out on the streets, working in shifts. But today that dynamic is reversed. One guy sitting in front of a monitor, can track, with precision, an unimaginably large number of people.
For the first time in human history, it’s both technologically and financially feasible for governments to track and store nearly complete records of our private lives. This is not science fiction, this is happening now. When we look at the construction of facilities such as this, the NSA’s Data Center in Bluffdale, this was called by them, the MDR, the Massive Data Repository. They called it that for a reason, this was not the targeted Data Repository, this was not something that was designed just to watch this person or that person, it’s because they were ingesting everything, everywhere and saving it in case it might be of interest later. In case something came up. Someone who previously, there was no justification to watch, someone who had committed no crime, someone who was an ordinary person, would have their life captured, crystallized, compressed and stored perfectly, timelessly for five years or more, just in case they wanted to look at them.
This is what’s happening today, even in developed democracies, places that should know better. In the past few months the United Kingdom passed the most extreme surveillance built in the history of western democracy, called the Investigatory Powers Bill. It takes every thing the NSA was doing, institutionalizes it, and expands it to a level of intrusive detail that truly is beyond what we have seen the worst police states in history have within their authorities to go after.
This is a law so authoritarian and so abusive, that experts say it goes farther than laws like China and Russia, which I think we can all agree are no friend to civil liberties. In Russia last year, they passed what they called an anti-terrorism package the Yarovaya Packet. Russians call it The Big Brother Law, and if Russians are calling surveillance law The Big Brother Law, you know there’s a problem. China is passing new intrusive surveillance bills that are modeled after the US’s own bills, very carefully, so that the US cannot criticize them for using the same powers to abuse their citizens rights. We are witnessing the construction of a world in which the most common political value is fear.
Now, these problems don’t only exist far away in other countries, and this is the central issue that we face in our modern times. Many argue that extraordinary powers such as these, are necessary for protecting us, or keeping us safe, they use reassuring political language. Perhaps this is true, but we should always be aware that we may not get to choose what it is that we’re actually being protected from.
I would like to ask you about a particular story that’s fairly well known here. This is written by a Professor at Georgetown, Alvaro M. Bedoya, and he wrote about a famous case. The FBI was investigating someone, a prominent religious leader, sort of cleric, inside the United States, and the FBI said this guy was in contact with foreign radicals, he’s possibly a threat. The Attorney General himself was briefed on the case, personally approved wiretaps said, “This is fine, this is what we should be doing,” even though this was a US citizen, even though he was born here. He was placed on a watch list to be detained in the event of a national emergency, to make sure he couldn’t cause trouble.
Of everybody the FBI was tracking at the time, the head of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Unit said he thought this guy was the most dangerous from the standpoint of national security. Do you recognize this case? That assessment, that he was the greatest national security threat that we were facing, this was the person we needed to be protected from, was made two days after he gave the, “I have a dream,” speech.
The programs that I revealed that everybody was saying was, “Oh my God this is necessary, the defense of the country, everything’s going to end if the secret gets out,” the president himself, Barack Obama, appointed two independent investigative commissions in the wake of the revelations of 2013, who looked into these mass surveillance programs, they had complete access to classified information, they interviewed the CIA Director, NSA Director, FBA Director, all these guys, and they could not find a single instance in more than 10 years of operation, where this kind of mass surveillance had not only saved a life, it had never done that. They said, it had never even made a, quote, “concrete difference” in the outcome of any counter terrorism investigation.
Why are politicians justifying programs on the basis of saving lives of countering terrorism, that for more than a decade, have never shown any value for countering terrorism? They’re not stupid, right? Governments are many things, but they’re not often incompetent across all levels, particularly at the working level. When you go high up it’s decision makers, you might get some questionable decisions. But the real answer is these programs were never about terrorism. They do have value, mass surveillance has value, just not for saving lives. It is valuable for traditional espionage, diplomatic manipulation, economic espionage and social influence. Controlling the narrative, shaping the way the world thinks about issues and understanding what everybody’s thinking, who is connected to who.
These programs are about power, privacy verus security, and they say that’s what this is about. This is not what that’s about. They are not competing values, when privacy increases of a person, their security increases. If no one knows what you’re up to, no one can take action against you, no one can basically make you vulnerable. When you’re being watched and recorded everywhere you go, not only are you becoming less private, you are becoming less secure.
What this is really about is, this is about liberty versus surveillance. Not verus security or anything else like that. Surveillance preys on vulnerability, surveillance preys on the lack of privacy. The idea is, what is liberty? You know, if you ask a bunch of different people in the room they might have different ideas, but in a large way, liberty and what has made the American tradition so powerful and our project so successful, is the ability to act without permission. Liberty is freedom from permission. When the government is seeking to expand its own liberties, at the expense of the public’s, that should be something that alarms all of us.
Senator Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
General Clapper: No Sir.
Senator Wyden: It does not?
General Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.
Senator Wyden: All right.
Edward Snowden: It raises this central question right of, okay, if we can’t trust the statements of Congress that are made under oath, if we can’t trust the courts to get to the truth of the matter, of the most extreme applications of national governmental force, who’s really in charge of government? Are we, as we were intended to be, partnered to government as citizens? Or are we instead, becoming once again something closer to subject to it?