Q&A: Edward Snowden on rights, privacy, secrets and leaks in conversation with Jimmy Wales

WikiTribune founder and CEO Jimmy Wales recently interviewed former CIA employee Edward Snowden, whose revelations in 2013 exposed global surveillance programs, many run by the U.S. National Security Agency with the cooperation of other governments and telecommunications companies.

This is an edited version of their conversation over Skype between London and Moscow where Snowden has been since his exposé – unable to return to the United States for fear of prosecution. The  discussion ranged across mass spying, journalism, leaking and the risks to privacy from online platforms like Facebook — let alone security agencies vacuuming up our communications.

Jimmy Wales: Let’s begin by asking where you stand on organizations like Wikileaks releasing huge caches of unfiltered information?

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden, the former CIA analyst who in 2013 leaked information on mass surveillance programs. Picture: Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Edward Snowden: I don’t pass judgment on whether Wikileaks did the right thing or the wrong thing, because I think this kind of experimentation is important. We need to challenge the orthodoxy.

We need to challenge the presumptions that whatever we’re doing right now, the status quo, is the best of all possible worlds. This is the best anybody could possibly do. Instead, we test our premises again and again in different ways, so what I did was I saw that inside the United States government, the National Security Agency had started violating the Constitution in a very unprecedented and indiscriminate way.

‘They have a bucket of everybody in the world’s private lives’ – Edward Snowden

They were collecting the phone records, the internet records, all this transactional information about people’s private activities: the most intensely intimate and private details of their daily life, without any regard to whether or not they were actually criminal, without any regard to whether there was any problem caused for suspecting they were involved in any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Instead, they had developed this new model.

They call it the “collect it all” model (The Guardian), where they collect everything they can about every innocent person, so that they have a bucket of everybody in the world’s private lives that they can then later sort through and search through at their leisure, if you ever do come to their interest. If you become interesting, they have a kind of surveillance time machine, where they can wind it back, depending on the type of content, the size of it, anywhere from three days to about five years.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and WikiTribune
Jimmy Wales – founder of WikiTribune and Wikipedia. WIKITRIBUNE/Francis Augusto

JW: What do you think this kind of data-collecting does to the relationship between citizens and the government?

‘We’re becoming less citizens and more subjects’ – Edward Snowden

ES: The bottom line here was that the American public was misled in a way that actually matters, because when we think about democracy, when we think about our system of government, every democracy is founded upon a single principle and that’s the legitimacy of its government is derived from the consent of the governed (Dictionary.com).

We cast our votes to make clear our policy preferences, to steer the future of government, but if we’re being lied to and our understanding of how the process of government, how the operations of government are being carried out, when our understanding of what the government does in our name, and against us, is not correct, and we vote based on these premises, what’s happening is we’re starting to lose our seat at the table of government. We’re becoming less citizens and more subjects.

JW: What are your concerns over the kind of surveillance in which the U.S. is actively engaged?

ES: In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air (The Guardian). Now that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything, telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide if this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country. The technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny and there would be no way to fight back. That’s the abyss from which there is no return.

JW: People seem to think that monitoring individuals is a recent development. But history has shown us that the U.S. government has long investigated those individuals it has deemed threats.

ES: Two days after Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, the FBI’s director of domestic intelligence made the judgment that Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest national security threat facing the United States. This happened in secret. We didn’t find it out until years later in the Church Committee (The Washington Post). But this is the natural progression of unchecked, unrestrained intelligence agencies in any country. This is not a uniquely American problem. We’ve seen it happen in other countries before. So the question is, again, how do we do this? We need to have a system of checks and balances. So the idea of this grand bargain was they would create a secret court that would basically issue warrants for intelligence investigations, like they did for traditional criminal investigations. This would be a specialized court that would understand all the difficulties here. They would all have clearances. There would be no fears of leaks and, for a time, that worked. But the problem is, from the 1970s, when the applications that went to this court were few and they were very serious applications, these rule-breaking agencies started to figure out how to abuse the system of rules and the secret court went along with it.

JW: What role, if any, does Congress play in all of this?

ES:  Many of the largest critics of surveillance in Congress now aren’t allowed to sit in the intelligence-oversight hearings. We have 535 members of Congress, but only roughly 20 of these folks are allowed to actually be briefed on these kind of domestic surveillance programs, and this is the central problem. You have an executive, a president who doesn’t want to be checked and again, this isn’t because they’re evil. That’s because that’s what every president does. They don’t want the senators sniffing around what they’re doing. They don’t want courts telling them what they can and can’t do.

We see this quite recently with Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, which as soon as the courts got wind of it, and had a role and could say, “we have a role to play here,” said “look, we understand what you’re trying to do here, but it’s a violation of the Constitution and you can’t.” So presidents want to cut people out. The courts increasingly have gone, as long as the government’s said “it’s a secret and you can’t prove it’s actually happening,” sorry, we can’t help you. And the Congress has been trained over decades to think the best thing for you to do in your re-election campaign is to not look too closely and to open your pockets. [This has] resulted in a system that allowed more than a decade of operation of an unconstitutional domestic dragnet.

JW: Prominent critics of leaks such as John McCain and Hillary Clinton have argued the disclosure of sensitive information puts people at risk. What do you think?

ES: There has never been a case that the government has identified where somebody’s been hurt by one of these disclosures, but it’s at least theoretically possible. And this is the central question: how should we balance these hard decisions when, on the one hand, we’re talking about the theoretical risks of journalism in a free and open society, and on the other, we’re talking about the concrete, quantifiable harms of bad policy, of rights violations that are actually backed by evidence?

‘We have ultimately diminished the meaning of rights in the United States’ – Edward Snowden

When we hear people talking too much about how we should do journalism, and not enough about how we should curtail these harmful programs of policies that have been revealed by journalism, that is an indication that people are arguing perhaps less in good faith and are most interested simply in changing the topic of conversation away from what’s being done to your rights behind closed doors, as something they can just go “look, this is a political issue,” where there may not be any right answer, but we can argue about this until the end of the time, without actually having to confront the criticisms that are being made about how we have ultimately diminished the meaning of rights in the United States and around the world.

JW: On a more meta level, what do you think is more concerning about the internet and the information we involuntarily disclose about ourselves?

ES: We need ways of protecting ourselves from advertisers, as our communications are simply transmitting the internet and yes, it’s critically important, particularly in a moment where governments are increasingly unpredictable, unreliable and less representative of what the public actually needs, when governments are becoming less defenders of the public and unfortunately, more oppressors of the public, we need to start thinking about how we can protect our right to protest, how we can actually go to a protest without worrying about our phone, our cell phone, being shown on the roster of the cellphone towers around the protest sites, that the police can simply go “yup, yup, yup, we now have a perfect record of attendance for everybody who had a cellphone that was turned on there.”

JW: What lessons can journalists learn from this?

ES: A lot of people like to think of journalism and whistleblowing as two separate topics, but in reality, they are the same issue. We can’t have real journalism without informed, reliable sources being able to tell journalists what they need to know, rather than what they are permitted to know, either by policy or process or presidents, or by law. If the law is being broken, if the public’s rights are being violated, journalists have to be able to access that material. But if telling journalists about that is itself a crime, now you start raising real questions about all right, how do you actually ensure that this happens? This means, in our world today, whether we like it or not, doing real journalism increasingly relies upon technology and that trend is increasing over time and that means yes, embracing mechanisms like encryption.

JW: What is the main difference in how private data is gathered these days, compared to the past?

ES: Mass surveillance is what the controversy of the last several years is about and this means suspicion-less surveillance, whereas the government calls it “bulk collection” of people’s records without regard for whether or not they’ve done anything wrong. This is not normal. This is not something that’s happened historically. This is not something that previous societies did. The traditional means of investigation, that we know works, unlike this mass surveillance, which President Obama had two independent commissioners look into and they both said it doesn’t work.

JW: There are a number of investigations currently going on into Russian malfeasance during the US election of 2016. (CNN) “Fake news” is an especially important topic in online news. Do you think censorship works?

ES: Censorship does not do good. We might want to believe it does, and this gets into the fake news problem, for example, that if we just empower Facebook to decide what we can and can’t see and what is good and bad, the problem can be solved. But this is a mistake for a number of reasons.

One, it creates a slippery slope where now we have private corporations deciding what can and cannot be said. But further, let’s say there are clear cases, we’re talking about things like Jihadist propaganda, we’re talking about fascist communities that are promoting ideas that are actively harmful, out in the public. The problem is, if you censor them, you don’t actually remove them. You don’t stop the idea from being spread. You just force them underground. It is underground where these ideas actually propagate best and most effectively. This idea that we can just stamp out ideas, we know does not work. This is the cause of every revolution in human history.

‘Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights’ – Edward Snowden

JW: Much of this debate seems to rest on the preconception that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t mind any intrusion into your privacy. What do you think?

ES: Privacy’s not about having something to hide, privacy’s about something to protect.

Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Privacy is where rights are derived from, because privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is the right to a free mind. Privacy is the ability to have something, anything, for yourself, for you. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean very much if you can’t have your own ideas and to have your own ideas, you have to have a safe space to develop these ideas, to figure out what it is that you actually believe in. Then to test these ideas selectively with people you trust, to determine whether this is actually a good idea or whether it’s stupid.

If every idea that you had ever uttered was instantly captured and recorded and followed you around for the rest of your life, you would never outlive even the slightest mistakes that you’d made. Freedom of religion, of belief, is not meaningful, it doesn’t really exist, if you only inherit the beliefs that came from your family or the people before you or from the state. You have to actually have a chance to read, to look, to try, to experiment with new ideas, to figure out what this life of ours is really about for you.

JW: In recent years we have also seen journalists around the world targeted for their access to confidential sources and information. What implications does this have for the freedom of the press?

ES: Freedom of the press cannot truly, meaningfully exist, unless journalists can contact their sources in absolute confidence and privacy, to inform their understanding of what is actually going on. This goes from the highest levels to the lowest levels of our society. We’re not just talking about freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, by the way. It doesn’t matter if the Government is saying, well, we don’t listen to your phone calls, if they’re actually collecting records of them in the first place, because that seizure of those records itself is unconstitutional. Even again, our lexicon, the words we use, the phrases, private property means something that belongs to you rather than belongs to society. If we do away with privacy, we’re doing away with individuality, we’re doing away with the self, we’re saying that we don’t belong to ourselves, we belong rather to society and this is a fundamentally dangerous thing, because when you get into that mindset, where rights don’t matter because I’m not using them at this moment, you misunderstand why we even have rights.

JW: Privacy has also allowed women and minorities to organize political campaigns for their rights. In many instances, this has had to be done outside of the eyes of the state.

ES: The disenfranchisement of women, saying that they cannot vote, is not right, no matter what the justification, and every progress, every moment beyond then, always started as a minority idea, a minority opinion, and it was privacy that allowed these people to co-ordinate, that allowed them to develop these ideas and organize people who supported these ideas and to spread these ideas until they reached that point of critical mass that changed the world and made all of us a little more free, that made our lives more fair, that made our future brighter and without this, without privacy, you have created not just an anti-social world, you have created an un-free world and you have not become a bit more safe because of it. Even in prison, the most secured environments we have, people are still assaulted, people are still abused, people are still killed.

‘Rights are for the powerless. They’re for the minority. They’re for the different. They’re for the weak’ – Edward Snowden

JW: Beyond the day-to-day implications, breaches of privacy and security have a more profound effect on the rights of citizens as individuals. Have you come to any conclusions on this issue?

ES: Rights aren’t for the majority, rights aren’t for the privileged, rights aren’t for the powerful, because they don’t need them. Their access to influence allows them to shape what rights are. They allow them to shape what our laws are. They allow them to determine and influence the way society works. Rather, rights are for the least powerful. Rights are for the powerless. They’re for the minority. They’re for the different. They’re for the weak.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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