On Apple vs. FBI, privacy, the NSA, and more
On February 20, Edward Snowden addressed a wide range of questions during an in-depth interview with Reason’s Nick Gillespie at Liberty Forum, a gathering of the Free State Project (FSP) in Manchester, New Hampshire. FSP seeks to move 20,000 people over the next five years to New Hampshire, where they will strive to secure “liberty in our lifetime” by affecting the political, economic, and cultural climate of the state.
Snowden’s cautionary tale about the the dangers of state surveillance wasn’t lost on his audience of libertarians and anarchists. He believes that technology has given rise to unprecedented freedom for individuals around the world—but he says so from an undisclosed location in authoritarian Russia. And he reminds us that governments also have unprecedented potential to surveil their populations at a moment’s notice, without anyone ever realizing what’s happening.
In the midst of a fiercely contested presidential race, Snowden remains steadfast in his distrust of partisan politics and declined to endorse any particular candidate or party, or even to label his beliefs. But he stresses that the U.S. government can win back trust and confidence through rigorous accountability to citizens and by living up to the ideals on which the country was founded.
- Date of recording: Thu, 2016-02-25
- Language(s) spoken: English
0:00 Meet the Free State Project.
NG: So to get right into it, I want to thank Matt Philips and Carla Gericke in particular but all of you in New Hampshire for everything you’re doing with the Free State Project to create “liberty in our lifetime.”
Edward Snowden, thank you so much for joining us. We’re talking from the Liberty Forum of the Free State Project. In 2003, [the organizers] created a project where they said, “We’re going to get 20,000 people to agree to move to New Hampshire and make the state a freer and more interesting, more innovative and fun place.” They recently passed the 20,000 mark so the great migration has started and at some point I’ve been asked to welcome you to come to New Hampshire, to a free state when you have time.
And I’ve been told that among other things, it will be a free and independent New Hampshire. They’re even getting rid of the state liquor stores and they’re not going to have extradition with the rest of the United States. So hopefully you can join us.
Let’s talk about the story that’s very much in the news now: The issue of Apple being requested by court order to unlock the cell phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. You recently tweeted, “This is the most important tech case in a decade. Silence means Google picked a side, but it’s not the public’s.” Can you elaborate on that? Is Apple really on the public’s side? And how does strong encryption of personal communication, even when utilized by terrorists, strengthen freedom and liberty?
00:53 Apple vs. the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Why should strong encryption be legal?
ES: This is an incredibly complex sort of topic. When you think about the whole Google/Apple thing, first off, Google did come forward. Their CEO made some comments in sort of the defense of the ability of private enterprises not to be constricted by government but to sort of do softer work at their direction rather than at the direction of their customers. Now it was very tentative, but hey, it’s a start.
When we think about sort of Apple, are they the big champions of liberty and individual rights, it’s not really about that. We’re not looking for the perfect heroes here, right? It’s “don’t love the actor, love the act.” And what we see is that what the FBI is asking for right is in the wake of the San Bernadino shootings which are of course legitimate crimes, this is an act of terrorism as it’s been described. And they said “alright, we’ve got this private product out there that’s designed to protect the security of all customers, not a particular individual customer, but it’s a binary choice. Either all of us have security, or none of us have security.
And so the FBI went “yeah yeah yeah, that’s great but we want you to strip out some essential protections that you built into this program so we can attack the program in a certain way.” And as a technologist, this is deeply disturbing to me because I know that we’ve had laboratory techniques since the 1990s that allow the F.B.I. and other organizations that have incredible resources to unilaterally mount hardware attacks on security devices to reengineer their software without compelling private actors, private enterprises, private individuals to work contrary to their will. Now prior to this there are important court precedents that have equated code to speech. It’s an act of creation, an act of expression when you program something, which is no different than someone writing a paper or building a house. These are things that are guided by your intention. And if the government can show up at any time, at any house, at any individual and say “regardless of your intention, regardless of your idea, regardless of your plan, you don’t work for you, you work for us, that’s a radically different thing.
And whether it’s Apple or Google or anybody else who at least challenges that assertion of authority and allows us to litigate that, both in the courts and in the public domain, this is critical. Because prior to this moment, these things were being litigated in secret in front of a secret court, a foreign intelligence surveillance court. In 33 years, [FISA courts were] asked by the government 33,900 times to authorize surveillance or reinterpretations of statutory law that are more favorable to the government, that we never knew about because all of these decisions are classified. In those 33,900 times in 33 years, the government got a no from this court only 11 times in 33 years. And that’s why it matters and that’s why I think this is important.
NG: Can I ask a follow up question and part of this is legal and part of this is kind of technological, I mean is any communication really secure anymore? David Brin 20 years ago talked about the transparent society: privacy is done, get over it. And if no communication is really secure anymore, is it a problem or is there a way to actually hold the government accountable and to restrain it, or corporations for that matter? Is this beyond a question of government acting and corporate acting and individual acting because certainly Brin was writing long before Facebook and social media where people are giving away oodles of information again and again (and all freely).
So is any communication private anymore and if it isn’t, then what next?
05:02 Is privacy dead? Should we just get over it?
ES: Well this is again, a really complex question. I could talk for a lot longer than the time we have on it. But the idea here is that there are different kinds of surveillance. Mass surveillance, which is typically done on communications in transit right, as they cross the internet over lines that you don’t own, but you don’t have a choice not to use because of the nature of the modern communications grid.
You can’t say “I want my communications to only route this network.” Once they leave your home, once they leave your handset or your cell phone or whatever device you’re using, it’s out of your control and it gets routed invisibly across borders, across systems, across enterprises. The danger of this is that any one of these actors, whether they’re corporate actors, whether they’re governments, and we know for a fact that governments particularly are using this sort of capability. As they transit, if they are transiting electronically naked, that is unencrypted, anybody can read these. They can capture these, they can store these, they can do whatever they want with them and there’s no indication that it happened. So this is the property of course that spies like, whether they’re corporate or they’re state.
NG: It’s that nobody even knows they’re being spied on.
ES: Right. Does this mean that there’s nothing that works, no. There are ways to shelter the content of the communication which is basically, if you think about what’s in the e-mail, what’s in the register with Amazon.com or the call that you made on a voiceover IP system, or the text message that you send through a certain app, they can no longer read that.
All they can see, what you’re doing is those communications that were electronically naked have now been closed. They’ve been armored in the kind of thing that means I can’t just look under your skirt and see what’s happening there. All they can do is see that now there’s a covered wagon sort of moving down the trail. That cover allows you to have some measure of privacy but there’s still a danger here which is they can monitor the movement of the wagons. And this is what the government refers to as metadata.
How non-experts should think about it is “me data.” It’s data about you. There are perfect records of private lives in the activities sense. They can’t see what you’re saying but they can see who you’re saying it to, when you are saying it, with what frequency. Intelligence agencies use this information to derive what we call “the pattern of life” of individuals. And it’s very much the same as what a private eye would create and store if they were following you around all day. They can’t sit beside you at every cafe you go into because you’ll notice “that’s the same guy that was there all the time” or “why is this guy leaning over to my table to hear my conversation?”
But they’ll be near enough to see who you’re meeting with, when you got there, what the license plate of your car was, when you left, where you traveled to, where you slept at night. Now this stuff is being done on a mass, indiscriminate scale to all of us, even today, even sort of after these reforms. The government stopped holding these repositories of data for a particular phone collection program who everybody in the country calls, but they said the phone companies can still hold this information and we’ll just ask them for it. But for the internet, they haven’t made any changes to those programs as a result.
Now when we talk about the direct factual challenges there, there are two points. One is armoring the in-transit communications. This is a principle called end-to-end encryption. Now the Founding Fathers of the United States used encryption to protect their communications. Benjamin Franklin did a number of enciphering systems himself because he recognized that when great power has intensely detailed private information about the political activities of groups that are acting in manners that they would find inconvenient or burdensome, it’s going to be a very short revolution and we would have lost.
So they sort of asserted means of defense. That is what is happening today, for the internet is a standard. It’s not targeted against the United States government, it’s targeted against all actors who seek to subvert the intention of the users. We’re trying to protect everyone everywhere across borders. We’re not just fighting the NSA, right, this is about China, Russia, North Korea, whoever you’re afraid of, we can protect everyone from all of them by working together. There is still that further measure of metadata, sort of “me data” again, the private activity records, where how do we conceal the fact that a communication occurred as opposed to the details that occurred within it. And that’s still an area of active research. There are programs that are developed that do help this, but this is still actively a topic of research.
10:48 What would a legal and effective government surveillance program look like?
NG: People like William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, and Thomas Drake [whistleblowers against surveillance]: You’re not against the government actually acting to ensure the safety of citizens. Can you talk a little bit about what would a government surveillance program that is legal and effective look like for you? How would they play that out without inevitably [abusing their reach]? You’ve written about that what the government can do and what it should do, are merging, that there’s no sense of morality. But how do we put that kind of stopping point where we have a government that can help protect us but not ultimately surveil us constantly?
ES: Well, the first point here is to recognize that the nature of open societies, free societies, right, nations of liberty, is that life does entail some measure of risk. You’re only going to be perfectly protected if you sort of bury yourself under the ground and live in prison. And then, you’ll still be at risk from the inmates that are walking the asylum with you. Life involves risk, it involves choice, it involves contest.
That’s where it derives its value from, that’s where we progress from. We are tested everyday by our environments. Now that doesn’t mean we sort of open the vest and assume that we should be vulnerable to every actor anywhere who wants to do us harm. No of course, we should take reasonable measures, and we should work to create capabilities and measures that allow us to identify wrongdoers and punish the wicked, as things have always worked sort of, throughout human history. Now the method of law enforcement that we know works has been the model for thousands of years that has done so. And that is that we use what’s called a particularity requirement, which is really what the Fourth Amendment is about in legal terms. The idea is we don’t have a general warrant where the court says that anybody you think might be related to some class of activity, whether that’s political or you might even call it radicalism, or anything like that, you just go “Well, we think they’re like that so we’re going to look at them.”
Instead, you need some probable cause that you can demonstrate to a court. This isn’t just a gut feeling, you have be able to to lay out the evidence. If this individual is engaged in some kind of wrongdoing, if they are a criminal, and it meets a threshold that allows the court and the public sort of by proxy to go, “The interest in sort of limiting these rights for this particular period of investigation for the public outweighs that of the natural right that we all enjoy to be left alone without reasonable cause.”
This is what has changed in the wake of 9/11 and particularly what 2013 revealed. If the government is targeting a particular device of an individual or they’re trying to tap a phone of an office that they know is involved in mob activity, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what we’ve always done. We’ve done this for hundreds of years. We have to have those methods of investigation but at the same time, pre-criminal investigation, that is watching all of us all of the time, because we might someday become interesting, they want to go back in time and look at all the records that they collected in advance. The government calls this bulk collection, everyone else calls it surveillance, and says “Well you’ve come to our attention today but we know what you did June 5th 1992 and we don’t like that.”
That’s a problem because it radically reorders the balance of power in society. It is preemptively restricting our rights without any cause to do so to create a sort of surveillance time machine that allows them to go back and say no matter what you’ve done, we know what that was. We can analyze you, we can assess you. And why this matters is it’s no longer justice. It’s only order, and these are very different things.
14:53 Could we have stopped the slide into mass surveillance?
NG: Six years ago this month, in 2010, in an Ars Technia forum under your unfortunate pseudonym “TheTrueHOOHA,” you asked, “did we get to where we are today via a “slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?” With what you were just talking about, how would you answer that question now? Are we frogs in a pot of water that’s getting warmer and warmer or was there a switch that was turned on and that’s how this happened?
ES: So first off let me caveat as a privacy advocate, I’ve never publicly owned these posts. And this is not to say “oh these aren’t me” or anything like that. The individual in question who offered these posts seems to have a suspiciously large amount of correlating events in their life that match mine. But the point here is that when individuals write under pseudonyms right, there’s a reason for it. [It’s] so individuals can be judged on the basis of their ideas, their engagement in a particular conversation rather than their personalities.
NG: And certainly in American history, such as the Federalist papers [which were published anonymously], we are a country that was founded on anonymous speech in many ways. You, or whoever it was, was participating in a grand tradition….
ES: For the sake of argument, let’s presume that individual was me. The idea here is, “Could we have arrested this slide?” And at the time, contemporaneous to that, I think it was circa 2009, 2010, I was still working for the CIA, I had just moved to the NSA. I believe. And I didn’t have the same kind of comprehensive insights into how the system had arisen. And of course, if I would have been in this position writing as this individual, the idea would be, “Well, we should’ve seen this coming, right?” It would have been incremental, there would have been some public indications. But when you look at the public record of how the institutions of mass surveillance occurred in the United States—they occurred under a veil of secrecy. And when officials were challenged on them, even under oath, even on camera, they lied about them.
And this is something important. If we sort of rewind to that post-2013 moment, there were stories published in 2006 on warrantless wiretapping, more by James Bamford in 2012, and when you look at statements in front of Congress, they looked a lot like this between Rep. Hank Johnson and former Director Keith Alexander of the NSA:
[clip of exchanges runs]
Johnson: Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens’ e-mails?
Johnson: Does the NSA intercept Americans’ cell phone conversations?
Johnson: Google searches?
Johnson: Text messages?
Johnson: Amazon.com orders?
Johnson: Bank records?
Sen. Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
James Clapper No sir.
Wyden: It does not?
Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.
ES: So this is sort of the challenge. Can we stop policies? Can we arrest them? Can we have a voice in them? Can we have a vote on them if they are intentionally and wittingly concealed from us?
19:04 How can government earn back the trust and confidence of the American people?
NG: By all indications—look at Gallup or Pew or other surveys—trust and confidence in government to either be effective or to do the right thing, these are at or near historic lows. How does government win back the trust? I’m going to ask the libertarian question in a second, but most of us here are libertarians, not anarchists [groaning and baby crying]. And the anarchist is crying in the background there, but how does government gain back the trust and the confidence of the American people?
Because we saw this in the 1970s with the Church Committee hearings and a general hollowing-out of belief in government. Libertarians want a government that is smaller than it is perhaps, but one that is effective and is legitimate. How does government win back the people’s trust?
ES: Accountability. I mean, the whole idea behind the divide and the simple language of a private citizen and a public official is that we know everything about them they know nothing about us, because they are invested with powers and privileges that we don’t have. They have the ability to sort of direct the future of society, and as a result it is incumbent to assume a level of responsibility and accountability to the public for the exercise and abuse of those authorities that simply does not exist today. And that’s the problem. They know more about us than they ever have in the history of the United States and some would argue in any society that sort of ever existed before.
At the same, thanks to aggressive expansions of state secrecy authorities, the use of classification and so on and so forth, and even simple management of the press where, you know, they play leaking games and they don’t give comment on this, that, or the other, or more directly aggressive things like we just saw with the Director of National Intelligence, the most senior intelligence official in the United States. They’re excusing themselves from accountability to us at the same time they’re trying to exert greater power over us. And that I think leads to an inevitable result over time. Whether through good intentions or bad, that the public is no longer partner to government, but merely subject to it.
21:40 What’s wrong with the political parties in the US?
NG: From your Twitter feed, it’s clear you are following the presidential nomination process in the United States. Answer this because this goes to that question of accountability: You’ve talked about how there’s really no difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, the two major parties on these issues. How does a country that offers up something like three dozen varieties of Pop-Tarts in every supermarket—how are we reduced to a non-choice in the political process? How do we change [things] so that there are voices that are saying, “You know what, maybe the surveillance state needs to be talked about more?”
ES: I should caveat this with the fact that I’m an engineer, not a politician. My opinions being what they are, I look at systems in terms of incentives. Where are the incentives, and how does human behavior emerge in response to those incentives? We’ve approached what in game theory terms is called a Nash equilibrium, which is where you’ve got a limited set of choices that each player in the game can make and they’ve identified what is the most optimal move that they can make in the context of that game and so they play the same move every time hoping that in some rounds they’ll win even if over time they’ll lose because they’ll have the maximized score possible for the given set of constraints that exist. Now what this means is that people go, “Well I dislike this side, I dislike this individual, I dislike this tribe more than I dislike the other one and so I’ll pick this one.” And so they start voting against. It’s important to have the principle of understanding who I will vote for, but also who I won’t vote for. But we need to disentangle this from parties.
One of the reasons I haven’t endorsed anyone in the election is I don’t believe there’s anyone in the race that represents my values at the current time. Now this isn’t to say that won’t develop, this won’t change, but it’s not about who you hate the most, right? It’s about who represents you. And not voting is also a powerful action, right, you’re revoking a mandate. Now this can’t work forever, it works in the tactical sense, but we need to think more broadly, back in the kind of Samuel Adams sense right, small groups of people who are politically passionate can sort of light brushfires of liberty in the minds of men…
24:27 What are Snowden’s political beliefs? Is he a libertarian?
NG: That by the way is the ethos behind the Free State Project—very much so. So can I ask on a technical question: Can you vote in the election? Can you send in an absentee ballot? And if you do, will you make your vote public? It’s a secret ballot, but it would be kind of an interesting observation to see who you voted for.
ES: This is still a topic of…active research [laughter].
NG: You know, as I mentioned before, this is an overwhelmingly libertarian crowd and one of the things that libertarians talk about besides reducing the size, scope, and spending of government and maximizing individual freedom is recognizing that economic liberties and civil liberties are conjoined and inseparable.
In some of the clips that you showed, people were asking, “Are you tracking Amazon purchases? Are you tracking cell phones?” We see that surveillance covers economic activity as well as civil or personal communication. How do you define your politics or ideology and where did it come from? Do you consider yourself a libertarian or a classical liberal? Are these terms that are meaningful to you? Or how do you think about ideology I guess.
ES: Well you know there’s a whole field of political theory that I don’t really subscribe to in terms of classifying people on the basis of their beliefs. Because what it’s trying to do is it’s trying to establish tribes, it’s trying to establish common identities. And while I do think that is valuable and important for the sense of collective action, for me, it’s not really the right fit. I do see sort of a clear distinction between people who have a larger faith in liberties and rights than they do in states and institutions. And this would be sort of the authoritarian/libertarian axis in the traditional sense.
And I do think it’s clear that if you believe in the progressive liberal tradition, which is that people should have greater capability to act freely, to make their own choices, to enjoy a better and freer life over the progression of sort of human life, you’re going to be pushing away from that authoritarian axis at all times. Because authoritarianism is necessarily about the ordering and control of society. Now they can argue that that will produce a better quality of life, but it cannot be argued that it would provide a freer life. And for me, I’m on the side of freedom.
26:27 How did Snowden educate himself? Is he helped or hurt by his lack of formal education?
NG: You’ve said, “Our rights are not granted by government. They are inherent to our nature. It’s entirely the opposite for government. Their privileges are precisely to equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy.”
That’s coming out of a classical liberal tradition [which gave] birth to the American founding. You’re an autodidact in many ways. You don’t have fancy degrees and I don’t see diplomas on the wall behind you. Talk a little bit about the process of how did you educate yourself and how does that play into larger roles of the types of educations that governments or societies give people. Is it to liberate them? Is it to kind of subjugate them? Talk about where you came from in terms of your ideas and your self-learning.
ES: I don’t want to necessarily say that the modern education system is intended to subjugate people. But we do know clearly that it’s [designed to teach] a certain set of values upon everybody who is engaged in that system. Now those values don’t fit everyone, and one might say they’re not even appropriate values for a broadened, diverse, or liberal body, particularly one that has to be able to cast votes in a self-informed, critically thinking way, rather than one where you know the majority of your education is, “this is the history of this party and that party.”
For me, yes, I did not graduate from high school. Instead I got a G.E.D., and I don’t have the formal education and that’s held me back in a lot of ways. In terms of just wanting to have some kind of formal education, it’s difficult to go back and get later on. Like chemistry, right? I’m really interested in chemistry but lacking the formal education, it’s just kind of a pain to go back and read textbooks later on. At the same time, I have a very broad and diverse education on a number of different topics and this has helped me in my professional career because I was much more conversant and fluent on a number of topics that ended up being very highly valued in the national security space that really aren’t taught in school, particularly when it comes to system security and anonymity online, in certain ways, how to combat that.
This illustrates a key point which has been reflected by other thinkers before, it’s not original to myself, which is there is a very strong difference, a bright line difference between your schooling and your education. And we should all be careful not to let the one influence the other.
28:48 Why did Snowden see bulk surveillance differently than his NSA coworkers?
NG: You were working with people and you’ve talked about this, who had similar backgrounds and technical skills but then you brought a moral dimension to what you were seeing when you were working for the government as a sub-contractor. Was it a moral education that was lacking in the people around you? Or was there something in the way that you learned that triggered that sense of “You know, we all know this is unconstitutional or this is wrong?” Why was it you who actually decided to bring it to the public’s attention?
ES: Well, I represented a different generation in many ways than the majority of sort of the institutional structure at the NSA and CIA because of course I was the new group in.
But I was also sort of the first generation of children of the internet, right? When you think about where my biggest influences are in that context, my reading, my writing, well of course yeah we read the history of course yeah, we read the books and the traditions and the classics as well, which classics do you get directed to, which come to your attention? That becomes part of a sort of zeitgeist debate that occurs all around the world. You have a much larger mixing of perspectives. And because of that, nationalism— blind nationalism—is less effective.
Because there’s a very real difference between allegiance to country, allegiance to people and allegiance to state, which is what nationalism today is really more about. The institution can come and go but the people remain. And this kind of context is what differed. I brought a Constitution in and put it on my desk because I had a personal interest in it and I thought it was relevant to the work. And there were a number of people that I worked with, co-workers and colleagues, particularly when I started raising sort of alarm internally about these programs and saying, “Something doesn’t smell right here” who agreed with me, who were interested, who had different interpretations who challenged back and forth, but who cared.
And then there were others who didn’t, who said the Constitution didn’t really matter, who would literally say, “You know, who cares about the 4th Amendment, the 5th Amendment?” and so on and so forth, the 1st Amendment. It doesn’t really matter, this thing is from hundreds of years ago. It’s no longer relevant and look, we’ve got a job to do. There’s bad guys out there and we’re going to decide who they are and what we’re going to do about them.
The problem with that that I would argue is how designations of national security are made in the first place. There’s a real-life case here that I think is relevant to a lot of people where the FBI had a lead on the individual. They were a religious leader, a sort of community leader that the government state believed was in contact with or under the sway of sort of agents of foreign power. And this is common with all people who are involved with any kind of radical politics. If you challenge the prerogatives of the state, they presume it’s at the direction of another state because that’s simply how the thinking works.
The attorney general was briefed on the case, they said, “Yeah, let’s wiretap this guy even though he’s a US citizen, son of a popular cleric, fairly well known” and they put him on a watch list. They said “in the event of a national emergency, martial law you know, F.E.M.A. and so on and so forth we’re going to detain this person because they are dangerous. They are a destabilizer, they are a radicalizer, in the modern vernacular.” And the FBI actually made a determination that out of all of the similar radicals in the United States, this individual was the most dangerous from the standpoint of national security.
Does anyone in the room know this case? Do you recognize him? And the determination was made two days after he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. That is what a threat to national security looks like [displays image of Martin Luther King, Jr.]. There’s a very real difference between the public interest and the national interest. When you hear national interest, when you hear national security, think state interest, think state security and you’ll be on the right track.
33:03 Was the NSA involved in gathering evidence against Ross Ulbricht?
NG: Let me finish with three quick questions if I might. First, in the case of Ross Ulbricht, who was prosecuted for founding the Silk Road website and is now effectively [serving] a life sentence. Do you assume, or should we assume that the NSA was involved in corroborating or gathering evidence which they might have denied in the actual trial?
NG: Ok, alright. That was easy enough. Two more…
ES: Just to elaborate on that… But the NSA and the United States is part of a large group called the Five Eyes Network, right. This is the United States, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. And these five countries, they sort of mix everything together in a common pot, and they share and share alike. They’re not allowed to ask a partner to violate their laws, but partners can share information that would have been in violation of their laws if they didn’t ask for it.
Now not to say that particular strategy applied in this context, but the difference between the National Security Agency’s authorities and particularly the British equivalent of the NSA, the G.C.H.Q, is [that] the UK is allowed to use NSA systems that we built, that work in the United States and everything else against, or under the mandate of what’s called a serious crimes authority that’s completely unrelated to national intelligence prerogatives. And this includes drug trafficking. They are literally mandated for this. They use our systems for this. And the fruits of their investigations they can share freely with us.
So I would say yes, of course, and it was foolish in the court case, I understand why they did it, he didn’t want to own the server at the time, he didn’t want to say “yes, this is mine” therefore the judge wouldn’t allow him to make a sort of 4th Amendment argument here that investigatory restrictions had been violated. But it seems unthinkable to me that there was not an intelligence angle internationally that was involved in that case.
35:39 Will the government eventually give up fighting internet commerce? Or will they just change tactics?
NG: You know we’ve talked about governments will do what they can do. With something like Silk Road—and you can throw in something like some of the activities of people like Kim Dotcom and what not—will government at a certain point give up? When they realize that the minute that Silk Road was closed, other sites crept up that were dealing in larger numbers and more traffic? And will they come up with a different way of either regulating or minimizing harm that might arise from this? Or will they always be perpetually chasing after and kind of trying to, and I mean this in the broadest terms possible, always going after kind of nickel and dime dealers in activities that they don’t want? Or will they finally say “We can’t really surveil everything nor should we and so we’ll come up with a different way of dealing with technological innovation and human commerce?”
ES: I’m not sure. Again, this is something that is quite beyond my expertise. But I would say there are models in history to look at to sort of draw from. Look at the prohibition on alcohol. Eventually crime groups gained influence, they gained power, and they were difficult to combat as a result. Therefore, the government reevaluated the policy and found that it would be more in line with their interests, not the public’s interests, but their interests, if they ended that prohibition.
And we see similar things happening with prohibition of marijuana today. Now that’s not to say that I think there’ll be necessarily a global free-for-all, but technology is providing new means to enforce human rights and traditional concepts of human interaction through technology rather than through law, across borders, regardless of jurisdictions which allows people to communicate privately, associate privately, care about one another privately.
For example, in Russia there are prohibitions on who and how you can love one another as there were in the United States quite recently. And this kind of thing is being challenged in ways that I think will be difficult to subvert. Does this mean that sort of great powers are just going to, you know, throw their hands up, give up, and walk away? I think that’s unlikely. However, the individual is more powerful today than they ever have been in the past.
And this is why you see governments that feel threatened by an individual like Julian Assange, who’s trapped in an embassy. Because despite the fact that they can control the physical location of someone, the power of the reliable sort of old, bad tools of political repression, are increasingly losing their weight.
37:32 How can Snowden advocate freedom from a place like Russia?
NG: And the irony is not lost where you’re sitting in an authoritarian regime talking about how people are freer and more empowered than ever.
That is an irony that I hope people will cogitate on for a long time. When we talked about the presidential election, what would a candidate have to do in order for you to say “you know what, that is the type of thinking on surveillance or on individual freedom and liberty from surveillance that I can get behind?” What would they have to do?
ES: I mean again, this sort of political direction gets beyond my expertise so I don’t like to talk too much about it. You know you brought up an interesting point there about Russia that I think is actually important to contextualize. There’s a lot of fair criticism that’s like, “Hey, this guy’s in Russia.”
It’s important to understand that I never intended to end up in Russia. Originally, I was hoping to get to Iceland. After that, Latin America when Iceland fell through. But the State Department cancelled my passport, trapping me in Russia when I was initially on the move, as soon as they heard I was in the air. Despite the fact that I’ve asked several times, they’ve refused to reinstate it, which is quite interesting. The United States of course criticizes me for being in Russia but at the same time they won’t let me leave.
Be that as it may, there’s a deeper point here, a philosophical point here about hypocrisy. Is it hypocritical to be somewhere else and not be as concerned with that locality as you are with your own? And I would argue that it’s not. I owe my first duty, my first allegiance, my first loyalty to fixing my country before I try to solve the problems of the rest of the world, right? We’ve got to get our house in order first.
That’s not to say that I haven’t criticized the policies of the Russian government, which I think in many cases are clearly indefensible, particularly when it comes to how they reach into the internet, how they reach into private lives, private homes in ways that are not ok in Russia. They’re not ok in the United States and they’re not ok anywhere. And this is something that I expect to continue. The thing that I hope for the most, the thing that I care about the most is, “Let’s set the standard in the United States [so that] we are the example for the rest of the world to emulate.”
We don’t want people to hold us up as an example as today, and recently this week, this Apple vs. FBI case, where Apple by the way, just yesterday, had a call with the press where they said “No country in the world has asked us to provide the authorities that the FBI is doing today.”
We don’t want Russia or China or North Korea or Iran or France or Germany or Brazil or any other country in the world to hold us up as an example for why we should be narrowing the boundaries of liberty around the world instead of expanding them.
41:00 How should we teach children about the Internet?
NG: So, that’s another way of saying you definitely won’t be voting in this election I think.
A final question, and this goes to what the Free State Project is about because it is a brushfire for freedom and for liberty and it’s 20,000 people and even already with less than 2,000 people who’ve moved here, they’ve changed various types of laws and culture in New Hampshire, which is already a pretty free place.
You talked about being a kind of child of the internet. You know, many of us are parents, and our children should “read” the internet in its entirety, but what are the places, what are the texts that they should read? It is true [that the internet] decentralizes knowledge and you come across the serendipity of all sorts of perspectives, which is incredibly empowering and important. What are the practices that are good, that would give [children] an independent, critical ability to kind of move into a world which is both nationalistic in a good sense -you are an American and you seem to still be proud to be an American - but not statist. Where do we go on the internet? Where should we be asking our children to spend some time?
ES: I think it’s less important to go to specific texts as it is to demonstrate how specific texts are written. If I were a parent trying to help my child understand the internet, the key exercise that I would do is I would go look at cases that are super partisan today right, extraordinarily charged. And I would get two radically different rewritings of the same story and I’d make them read both. And I’d do this on a number of different things to show, because this is something that a lot of older people fall prey to who aren’t so familiar with the internet and they just get their news from a single landing page or portal or whatever.
And also young people who get super-filter-bubbled because they sort of opt into communities that create a sort of groupthink, where it’s are always people sort of agreeing with what they say. [That] was not available the same 20 years ago on the internet or 10 years ago on the internet really. There weren’t walls that were quite so high separating communities. The idea here is to show that the truth lies spread across the abundance of sources. The beauty of the internet is that you no longer have to rely on a single source. You no longer are vulnerable to the broadcast that is “this is the voice of truth, this is the voice of fact” but it’s important to understand that sources that you prefer can still be wrong, even if they’ve got the right principles, the right ideas, the right values. Getting the facts right matters more than anything else.
NG: You’re talking about the internet really as the fulfillment of the Enlightenment project of kind of competing versions of truth in a marketplace of ideas and an understanding about the construction of knowledge and truth rather than its self-evident presentation without argument following. You can just nod.
43:43 Under what conditions would Snowden return to the United States?
NG: For a final-final question, what would be the conditions under which you would voluntarily return to the United States? Are there terms that you would be happy for? And this is something, again not to harp on politics because all of us I think are living our lives beyond politics but, that’s one of the things you hear, like: Well you should come back and you know, have your day in court, etc.” What would be the conditions under which you might return?
ES: Right, so this is interesting, it’s evolved quite a bit. Originally, I volunteered myself for prison, but I said that I wouldn’t be, I wouldn’t allow myself to be held up as a deterrent to other people who are trying to do the right thing.
And that was fundamentally contrary to what the government wanted to do. Of course, they wanted to nail a scalp on the wall as a warning to the others. And even though I was quite flexible here, it was Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon papers, the secret classified history of the war in Vietnam in 1971, that showed the government had not only lied us into the war, but they kept lying to us to keep us in it despite the fact that they knew there was no way to win. And he told me that this was a mistake. And eventually he convinced me of this in the sense of to what do we owe our first loyalty? To law or to justice? And to submit ourselves to sort of a government that is sort of intentionally trying to deter the political beliefs and political acts of other people merely on the basis of law, as though that were a substitute for morality or superior to morality, is a very dangerous precedent to set.
Now, I’m still, this is I think, most people might be surprised by this, but fairly more trusting in the value of government and institutions than Daniel Ellsberg, who since his initial work, has just been an extraordinary crusader and a true radical in the best way, for more than a generation now. But when it comes to what’s the current context, what’s the current state of play that we’ve been at?
I’ve told the government that I will return if they guarantee a fair trial where I can make a public-interest defense of why this was done and allow the jury to decide if it was right or wrong in the context of both legality and morality. And the United States responded with a letter from the attorney general saying they promise they would not torture me. I’m not kidding, I have that letter. So it’s still kind of a work-in-progress but we’ll see where it goes.
NG: Well, thank you so very much for your time.
ES: Thank you. I look forward to seeing you in New Hampshire.
Produced by Todd Krainin and Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Krainin.
video source: http://reason.com/reasontv/2016/02/25/edward-snowden
image source: twitter.com