NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is currently doing a reddit AMA with journalist Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who just won an Oscar for her Snowden documentary Citizenfour.
Apart from some technical difficulties (mods accidentally banning his primary account), Snowden is giving some pretty thorough answers to users’ questions.
Here are some of the best:
TheJackal8: Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?
Snowden: I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.
Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it’s very important:
Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government’s own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.
Don’t let it happen in your country.
masondog13: What’s the best way to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 Presidential Election? It seems like while it was a big deal in 2013, ISIS and other events have put it on the back burner for now in the media and general public. What are your ideas for how to bring it back to the forefront?
This is a good question, and there are some good traditional answers here. Organizing is important. Activism is important.
At the same time, we should remember that governments don’t often reform themselves. One of the arguments in a book I read recently (Bruce Schneier, “Data and Goliath”), is that perfect enforcement of the law sounds like a good thing, but that may not always be the case. The end of crime sounds pretty compelling, right, so how can that be?
Well, when we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day. History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality. Slavery. The protection of persecuted Jews.
But even on less extremist topics, we can find similar examples. How about the prohibition of alcohol? Gay marriage? Marijuana?
Where would we be today if the government, enjoying powers of perfect surveillance and enforcement, had — entirely within the law — rounded up, imprisoned, and shamed all of these lawbreakers?
Ultimately, if people lose their willingness to recognize that there are times in our history when legality becomes distinct from morality, we aren’t just ceding control of our rights to government, but our agency in determing thour futures.
How does this relate to politics? Well, I suspect that governments today are more concerned with the loss of their ability to control and regulate the behavior of their citizens than they are with their citizens’ discontent.
How do we make that work for us? We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.
You can see the beginnings of this dynamic today in the statements of government officials complaining about the adoption of encryption by major technology providers. The idea here isn’t to fling ourselves into anarchy and do away with government, but to remind the government that there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed, and that as the progress of science increasingly empowers communities and individuals, there will be more and more areas of our lives where — if government insists on behaving poorly and with a callous disregard for the citizen — we can find ways to reduce or remove their powers on a new — and permanent — basis.
Our rights are not granted by governments. They are inherent to our nature. But it’s entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy.
We haven’t had to think about that much in the last few decades because quality of life has been increasing across almost all measures in a significant way, and that has led to a comfortable complacency. But here and there throughout history, we’ll occasionally come across these periods where governments think more about what they “can” do rather than what they “should” do, and what is lawful will become increasingly distinct from what is moral.
In such times, we’d do well to remember that at the end of the day, the law doesn’t defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.
cahaseler: We’ve now known about the scary stuff happening at the NSA for quite some time. And yet from what I’ve seen, there’s been no real effort to stop it.
What are your thoughts on what we, as regular citizens, can do now?
Snowden: One of the biggest problems in governance today is the difficulty faced by citizens looking to hold officials to account when they cross the line. We can develop new tools and traditions to protect our rights, and we can do our best to elect new and better representatives, but if we cannot enforce consequences on powerful officials for abusive behavior, we end up in a system where the incentives reward bad behavior post-election.
That’s how we end up with candidates who say one thing but, once in power, do something radically different. How do you fix that? Good question.
moizsyed: How did you guys feel about about Neil Patrick Harris’ “for some treason” joke last night?
Snowden: Wow the questions really blew up on this one. Let me start digging in…
To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad. My perspective is if you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.
“If this be treason, then let us make the most of it.”
LegalNerd1940: What validation do we have that Putin is being honest about NOT spying in Russia?
Snowden: To tag on to the Putin question: There’s not, and that’s part of the problem world-wide. We can’t just reform the laws in one country, wipe our hands, and call it a day. We have to ensure that our rights aren’t just being protected by letters on a sheet of paper somewhere, or those protections will evaporate the minute our communications get routed across a border. The only way to ensure the human rights of citizens around the world are being respected in the digital realm is to enforce them through systems and standards rather than policies and procedures.
boingeh: Don’t you find it kind of depressing how little the world was actually moved by the revelations? I do. For a few days at a time it was the biggest news story ever but barely anything has changed and people are still using Google, Apple et al. in the same ways. The news in general is just so transient, watching the documentary just brought it all back. It felt like it might actually amount to something but as far as I can tell, even with the courts recently ruling that GCHQs actions were illegal for many years and NSAs whole program amounting to nothing, no significant legislation has passed and for all we know they are still rapidly expanding their programs.
Snowden: To dogpile on to this, many of the changes that are happening are invisible because they’re happening at the engineering level. Google encrypted the backhaul communications between their data centers to prevent passive monitoring. Apple was the first forward with an FDE-by-default smartphone (kudos!). Grad students around the world are trying to come up with ways to solve the metadata problem (the opportunity to monitor everyone’s associations — who you talk to, who you sleep with, who you vote for — even in encrypted communications).
The biggest change has been in awareness. Before 2013, if you said the NSA was making records of everybody’s phonecalls and the GCHQ was monitoring lawyers and journalists, people raised eyebrows and called you a conspiracy theorist.
Those days are over. Facts allow us to stop speculating and start building, and that’s the foundation we need to fix the internet. We just happened to be the generation stuck with fighting these fires.
ba_dumtshhh: First, congrats to the Oscar! Mr. Snowden, what do you think about the latest News, kaspersky broke? I understand they don’t talk about victims and aggressors because it’s their business model. But do you think they should name the nsa as an aggressor when they now about?
Snowden: The Kaspersky report on the “Equation Group” (they appear to have stopped short of naming them specifically as NSA, although authorship is clear) was significant, but I think more significant is the recent report on the joint UK-UK hacking of Gemalto, a Dutch company that produces critical infrastructure used around the world, including here at home.
Why? Well, although firmware exploitation is nasty, it’s at least theoretically reparable: tools could plausibly be created to detect the bad firmware hashes and re-flash good ones. This isn’t the same for SIMs, which are flashed at the factory and never touched again. When the NSA and GCHQ compromised the security of potentially billions of phones (3g/4g encryption relies on the shared secret resident on the sim), they not only screwed the manufacturer, they screwed all of us, because the only way to address the security compromise is to recall and replace every SIM sold by Gemalto.
Our governments – particular the security branches – should never be weighing the equities in an intelligence gathering operation such that a temporary benefit to surveillance regarding a few key targets is seen as more desireable than protecting the communications of a global system (and this goes double when we are more reliant on communications and technology for our economy productivity than our adversaries).
Image via Imgur, Edward Snowden