Edward Snowden has hailed the recent US appeal court ruling on the legality of the US telephone metadata collection that was the subject of the first of his mass surveillance revelations. Speaking to security researcher Runa Sandvik at the Nordic Media Festival on 8 May, Snowden said that the importance of the ruling “in the United States’ legal and policy communities really can’t be overstated… [marking] a radical sea change in the level of resistance that the United States government has faced thus far” and that “it will affect every other mass surveillance program in the United States going forward.”
Edward Snowden’s full comments follow below.
Runa Sandvik: The first document that was published by The Guardian in June almost two years ago revealed that the NSA was collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily. Shortly after this document was published, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit. On May 7, we learned that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the statue the government is relying on to justify this–Section 215 of the Patriot Act–does not permit the gathering of this information and that the surveillance program is unlawful. What was your reaction when you first heard about this?
This is significant and the importance of it in the United States’ legal and policy communities really can’t be overstated. When we look at the actual ruling and what it held, it was that the program, which had originally started as warrantless wiretapping under President George Bush in the 9/11-era, had never been lawful to begin with, and yet they did it anyway. What’s extraordinary about this is the fact that in 2013, prior to the leaks, Amnesty International brought the same challenge against the same individuals, and they thew it out of court saying the organization could not prove it had been spied on. Because of this, whether or not the programs were lawful, whether or not they were a violation of rights, they would not allow them in the court room.
The first story that was published by Glenn Greenwald and the other journalists working on this showed that there was a secret court order, from a secret court, that basically said you can monitor the phone calls, intercept the call detail records, collect all the metadata. Metadata being analogous to the kind of information the Private Eye would collect if they were following you around. Not necessarily a record of every single word that you said in conversation with someone else, because you might notice them, but they know where you traveled, who you had met with, where the meeting took place, what time it occurred, how long it went on for, so on and so forth. That is metadata in the phone context. It’s not what you say on the call, it’s who you’re calling, how long, association records, basically who your friends are. But this secret program authorized that to occur, in secret, by a secret court, and it wasn’t something where it authorized any particular targeting of any particular individual. Rather, it said they can collect the phone records of all 330 million Americans in the country without having any criminal suspicion, without having any reasonable suspicion even of wrongdoing of any kind. Rather, they would collect it all in advance of any criminal investigation or criminal act.
This being struck down is really a radical sea change in the level of resistance that the United States government has faced thus far. So far, courts have said “it’s not our place, our role, to tell the Executive Branch of the government how to do their job.” It is extraordinarily encouraging to see the courts are beginning to change their thinking to say “if Congress will not pass reasonable laws, if the executive will not act as a responsible steward of liberty and rights in how they execute the laws, it falls to the courts to say this has gone too far.” No fair reading of the law would authorize this, even if that had occurred it is not reasonable to expect the public to have known that this was the law, and it must change. And that’s really significant and I think that this decision will not affect only the phone metadata program, it will affect every other mass surveillance program in the United States going forward.