Privacy

Discussing NSA leaks and recent state activities with Edward Snowden

David Strom 10 Jan 2022

Observing the changes that have taken place in the privacy landscape and how they affect today’s society

Edward Snowden and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges have recently come together in a video conference call moderated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. In the video, the group talks about the past eight years of privacy problems and other significant events. After Snowden leaked documents from the NSA and left their employment in 2013, he has been living in Moscow and since charged with violating the Espionage Act. The discussion explores his history, the state of affairs around Julian Assange’s self-imposed exile in London, and the relationship between governments and individual privacy in light of the NSA’s mass surveillance that was revealed by Snowden. 

In the first part of the call, Snowden recaps how his IT career evolved to the point where he was able to see the full scope and depth of the NSA’s mass surveillance program that he leaked to various journalists. Snowden is now with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, an organization behind several privacy-enhancing tools for journalists such as Signal, a secure messaging and file sharing app, and Press Freedom Tracker, a website that tracks how many American journalists have been arrested or assaulted (142 by their count in 2021, which is a big drop from 436 in 2020).  

Greenwald reviews how he and Snowden came to meet back in 2013. “Usually, you would expect someone with high level security access to be found in the DC suburbs and not Hong Kong.” He first requested some 20 documents to vet Snowden’s bona fides. “They were shocking and showed how nine tech companies were involved in wholesale tracking of their customers and how they gave this information to the government without any accountability, what we now know as the PRISM program.” He flew to Hong Kong the next day and so began their collaboration. “I was reading these top secret NSA documents on that flight, not the best operational security to be sure.” Greenwald was surprised by two things about his newfound source: “First, I was expecting someone much older, say in their sixties (Snowden was 30 at the time) and at the end of a longer career in the security services. Second, he wanted his identity revealed in our reporting. He didn’t want to conceal his identity and explain to the public why he was doing this and risk imprisonment.” 

During the past eight years, “Obama aggressively used the Espionage Act to shut down investigative journalism,” said Hedges. “Now, government employees are nervous about speaking to journalists. The wholesale system of government surveillance has shut down our access to people of power to do any real reporting on national security.” This, coupled with the trend with many news outlets who have reduced or closed their foreign bureaus due to cost reductions, doesn’t bode well for future reporting. “Covering a war is expensive, especially if you want to be safe and not get kidnapped. I was using an armored car and satellite phones in Bosnia, for example,” he said. 

Snowden had his own dire warnings. “The nature of the state and its relationship to the press has changed in the past eight years.” He mentions that he — and others employed by the government — don’t take any “oath of secrecy.” Instead, it is literally a non-disclosure agreement. “What we do take is an oath of service, an allegiance to follow the Constitution. But what happens when your activities are illegal and in conflict with that? I believed I had an obligation to leak these secret documents and draw attention to these programs.” 

If you haven’t seen Citizenfour, the documentary about Snowden’s 2013 activities, it’s well worth watching how he came to this decision.

Snowden also touches on the “unitary executive branch” philosophy that guided the Bush and subsequent administrations about their absolute power. “The legislature and judiciary have no role to play here, according to this viewpoint,” he says. On this note, there is an excellent piece on Dick Cheney by Joan Didion about the origins of this point of view.

“We used to have to go to a judge to obtain a search warrant on a suspect. Now, we collect all this information about you all the time, in advance of any suspicion, and now corporations are helping with this collection,” says Snowden. He summarizes the past several years, saying, “We are in this post-truth dynamic, where the actual facts are disputed.”  

The group also discussed the 2017 CIA plot to kidnap Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy. He now sits in a London prison, awaiting his extradition to the US, where he faces a maximum sentence of 175 years on espionage charges. Hedges said that “the mainstream press hates Assange. They hate him because he shamed them into doing their job. They want to present themselves as the journalistic and moral center, that is why they turned on him with a vengeance.” Snowden agrees: “Assange is the publisher, not the source of any whistleblowing data. It is absolutely ridiculous to say that Assange hacked the Pentagon. His crime was to tell the truth about something that the government didn’t want to be made public.”

When reflecting on the events that have taken place over the course of the past eight years, it’s important to observe the changes that have taken place in the privacy landscape and how they affect today’s society. Chandler Givens, Head of Consumer Privacy at Avast, comments: “Reasonable minds can differ about the propriety of Snowden’s revelations. What’s indisputable is that his action was a critical event in shaking people awake to the realities of wide-scale data collection, perpetrated both by governments and private companies. In the intervening years since his leak, the perception of privacy has shifted dramatically from a ‘tin-foil hat’ fringe topic to a defining challenge of our generation.”