Home page NSA and Snowden

Edward Snowden: "The campaign for the reform of mass surveillance can be won"

By Stefania Maurizi

Published on L'Espresso and espressonline, 4 June 2014

The mass surveillance of entire populations of people who are not suspected of any crime or wrongdoing is a clear violation of human rights and should never have been authorized”. One year after his decision to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs, Edward Snowden continues to be the most wanted man of all time. He exposed something that before his leak we may have found hard to believe: the real implementation of Orwellian control through cutting-edge technology, a huge spy machine able to penetrate into anyone's life.

The top secret documents he leaked one year ago have been able to provide evidence on how the National Security Agency (NSA) is able to spy on the entire planet, Italy included: a technological leviathan intercepting and storing billions of emails, phone calls, text messages, chats, comments on Facebook and on other social networks, videos posted on YouTube, searches on Google and other search engines, transactions with credit cards.

This is the data that reveals who we are, whom we meet and talk to, what we think about certain issues, what we like, what excites or disgusts us, what we buy and how much we spend. Snowden's decision to blow the whistle on the NSA is an unprecedented challenge in the name of democracy, to “preserve the old freedoms in a new age”.

He answers the questions of "l'Espresso" from his refuge in Russia, the country which has granted him temporary political asylum. He is not giving up, but he has no illusions. The path to reforming the NSA will not be an easy one: "Defenders of the surveillance state in Congress will never willingly give up a program, even a clearly unconstitutional one, if they believe it gives them some advantage", Snowden believes.

Everything started the 5th of June 2013, when the London daily 'The Guardian', came out with its first article based on top secret documents handed to two American independent journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, and to the Guardian's journalist, Ewen MacAskill. Like in a spy story, they had flown to Hong Kong to meet a mysterious source who had contacted Greenwald and Poitras anonymously, promising important revelations. That source was Edward Snowden, an American citizen not yet 30 years old who had worked in the heart of the US intelligence complex. Immediately after revealing himself, he found himself at the center of a huge manhunt unleashed by the most powerful government in the world. If he has managed to emerge from it still alive and free, it is thanks to Julian Assange’s organization, WikiLeaks, which sent journalist Sarah Harrison to Hong Kong. Harrison boarded a plane in Hong Kong together with Edward Snowden in search of political asylum. They ended up stranded in the Moscow airport, where she stayed with him for 39 days, only to surface together once Russia had granted him temporary asylum.

One year after these facts, only a tiny percentage of the top secret files Snowden downloaded and leaked to journalists has been made public. However, that small percentage was enough to open our eyes and trigger a wakeup call on the pervasive NSA mass surveillance. The real problem emerging from the Snowden files is not old-fashioned espionage - that "second oldest profession in the world" romanticized in the novels of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré - the real problem is that NSA mass surveillance represents an existential threat to the fundamental liberties of our society, which has almost entirely merged with the internet, because it is through the Internet and mobile phones that we run our lives today: we interact, socialise, share, express consent and dissent on political, intimate and personal issues.

However, Snowden seems confident: "The campaign for the reform of mass surveillance will not be easy, but it can be won", he explains to l'Espresso. But how to defeat a leviathan that has flourished over the entire last decade? As with nuclear weapons, mass surveillance technologies cannot be un-invented, there is no way to push the genie back into the bottle. Considering the immense resources invested in building this massive system, how realistic is it that the US government will give it up? Snowden agrees on this, but at the same time he believes that "surveillance is not the same as a nuclear weapon, because it can be directly and cheaply countered by the application of free technology". He does not go into the details of exactly what technology can help defeat surveillance, but on many occasions he has spoken publicly about how, in an era of pervasive surveillance, strong encryption is the key to protecting our privacy, the very same encryption he trusted to leak his secrets.

In any case, although the NSA files sparked off a massive scandal, serious and effective reforms have yet to be realized. "This is an important moment for reform", Snowden declares to l'Espresso, "but so far it seems clear that only courts like the European Court of Justice have tried to confront the issue seriously”. This is praise for the European Court of Justice, which last April declared the EU directive on data retention, which requires telecom and internet companies to store the internet and phone call data of all European citizens, indiscriminately, for up two years, invalid. An important sentence indeed, but, two months after this sentence it is not clear to what extent the European nations will actually implement it. In this climate of uncertainty and inaction, Snowden warns that “if governments fail to protect the rights of citizens and reform their behaviour here, I suspect that rather than achieving their goal of preserving unnecessary powers, they will lose more than they gain: when citizens lose faith in authority, we have a tendency to create our own solutions” . How? Once again he hints at the crucial capacity to protect our privacy through encryption technologies, thus "strengthening our rights through the higher laws of science and technology".

One year since the scandal exploded, it is not clear how this crucial struggle against NSA mass surveillance is going to end. Based on Snowden's experience and work for the most powerful intelligence complex in the world, does he believe we are going to end up in a world where the internet is a tool for strengthening democracy, or rather one for achieving absolute control and tyranny? "It's up to us”, he replies, “the Internet is an extraordinary magnifier of power, but that applies to both individuals and states. Magnifying the already massive powers of well-organized super states has narrowed our liberties in a significant way, because they already had so much more power than any given individual.

However, when you consider the theoretical aggregated power of the civil body of the internet standing in solidarity without regard to national borders – a body that previously never existed in history- hope comes into view. States are mighty, but the united body of its public is stronger, and the potential output of an organized but borderless global technical community makes even the most powerful state seem lonely and vulnerable”. In the U.S., something like that is happening. This hugely powerful nation is facing the mobilization of the entire world public opinion, outraged by the revelations regarding NSA spying on entire populations: a spontaneous protest, which did not require the mobilization of political parties, lobbies or traditional movements, a massive outrage that has prompted some governments like Germany to react harshly to the revelations.

One of the arguments used by the supporters of mass surveillance sounds like a mantra: what the United States is doing is exactly what Russia and China are doing. Snowden definitely disagrees on this: “The Russians, the Chinese, and every other country we think of as being on the 'naughty list' can only dream of the NSA's capabilities, because they do not spend $75 billion a year on intelligence programs”, he objects, adding: “I think it is reasonable to say the US is in some key ways guided by better intentions, but we've lost our way when it comes to setting policy. The mass surveillance of entire populations of people who are not suspected of any crime or wrongdoing is a clear violation of human rights and should never have been authorized. The government itself recognizes this, having freely signed Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits this kind of arbitrary interference in our private lives”.

Our interview with Edward Snowden ends with a question about the organization that saved him: WikiLeaks: how does he view Julian Assange’s organization? "They are absolutely fearless in putting principles above politics”, Snowden declares to l'Espresso, “Their mere existence has stiffened the spines of institutions in many countries, because editors know if they shy away from an important but controversial story, they could be scooped by the global alternative to the national press. Our politics may be different, but their efforts to build a transnational culture of transparency and source protection are extraordinary- they run towards the risks everyone else runs away from- and in a time when government control of information can be ruthless, I think that represents a vital example of how to preserve old freedoms in a new age”.