To coincide with the release of Laura Poitras’ film CitizenFour, which documents the causes, motivations and consequences of Edward Snowden’s momentous act of whistleblowing, Edward Snowden gave a number of new interviews and video appearances in the US and UK.
The New Yorker Festival
On Saturday 11 October, Edward Snowden was interviewed live by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, answering questions that were submitted online by readers of the magazine. In 2011, Mayer wrote the feature piece that brought the experience of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake to wide public attention.
In the interview, which can be viewed below, Edward Snowden predicted that the US Supreme Court would strike down domestic metadata collection. He also urged his audience to move away from digital services like Dropbox, Facebook and Google.
Observer New Ideas Festival
Edward Snowden also made a short video appearance at a Guardian event in London on Sunday 12 October, in conversation with technology writer John Naughton. The event was marked by some technical problems.
Video is available on the Guardian website.
Given that he was speaking to a British audience, Edward Snowden was asked to explain how GCHQ’s activities compared to the NSA, and he responded at length:
We have an extraordinarily large, very secret and unaccountable mass surveillance system in the United States. And that’s when we have constitutional protections that prohibit even the passage of any laws that might enable those programmes. Despite this we have something extraordinary going on over there.
Now in the United Kingdom, where you don’t have the same constitutional limits on the laws that Parliament can pass, what we’ve seen is the creation of a system of regulations where basically anything goes. The GCHQ and other British spy agencies can do anything they want, there are really no limits on their capabilities.
What they do is they collect everything that might be interesting to them, which includes basically a five year backlog of all the activities of citizens in the United Kingdom, for example through the collection of their metadata records – which is who they call, the locations they travel where their cellphones are associated with towers – and then they say, well we’ve collected this information but we’ll protect it on the backend. We’ll institute some kind of policy protection, some kind of limited pools.
They say that although we watch you all the time, we won’t look at what we gather. We won’t look at what we collect unless we go through a certain procedure.
Now even if you believe that is reasonable – it is in fact not reasonable, because that’s not the way rights work. You don’t have to say I need the right to privacy for this reason or that reason. It’s up to the government to justify its intrusions into your rights. You as a citizen never have to justify why you need a right or it’s not a right at all, it’s something circumstantial.
But even if that were the case, even if you thought it was reasonable for them to collect this information, the reality is that these policy restrictions and the regulations for accessing this data is not uniformly applied. There are exceptions and its basically open season.
Asked about the muted response to his revelations in the UK, Edward Snowden also expressed his hope that technological solutions would be able to institute protections on privacy rights where national political systems that failed.
If rights are not encoded on a technical level, at the level of systems, rather than just words on a page, they’re not really going to be meaningful when all of our systems are reliant on cross-border international solutions. We need international solutions for global problems.
National Union of Journalists Conference
On Thursday 16 October, the UK’s National Union of Journalists held a special conference on Safeguarding Journalists and their Sources. Edward Snowden was one of a number of speakers.
Edward Snowden’s revelations have brought the challenges facing journalists in the UK into particular focus: Glenn Greenwald’s husband David Miranda was detained for 9 hours under counterterrorism legislation and the Guardian agreed to destroy computer equipment under pressure from central government. In recent weeks, the ease with which British police can issue requests for phone and internet metadata, has become a focus of concern – to which the UK government has said it will institute judicial authorisation for journalists’ metadata, but not for that of the general public.
In his short talk, Edward Snowden described surveillance as “a new and novel violation of individual rights occurring in liberal societies, democratic societies where we shouldn’t really imagine this is possible, but yet it’s happening.” He also noted that, in the aftermath of his revelations, there had been an expansion of surveillance in several Five Eyes countries – the UK, Australia and New Zealand – in some cases brought in under emergency powers.
Interview with Larry Lessig at Harvard University
Finally, on Monday 20 October, Edward Snowden answered questions posed by Larry Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard University. Lessig is well-known for his work on copyright, free software and political corruption.
During the interview, Edward Snowden cited the Boston Marathon bombings as an example of how mass surveillance actually works against security by diverting resources from targeted investigations.
We are watching everyone that we have no reason to be watching simply because the may do something, at the expense of watching specific people who we have a specific cause for investigating.