Your government, my government, and several other governments around the world have access to our data. Not just the basics, but reams of the stuff, ranging from passive-aggressive work emails to that time you got drunk and bought something hilarious on Amazon.
This may bother you, but then again, it may not. It did, however, bother Edward Snowden, enough to give up his job, his home and the ability to see his family.
“I burned my life to the ground,” he says, speaking as always from his ironically Orwellian position as a talking head on a screen, broadcast from Moscow, Russia, his current place of sanctuary.
In this case, he’s speaking at the London-based FutureFest, held back in March. And although he isn’t there in person, the room is packed to the rafters with people aching to hear what he has to say.
“There’s a fork in the road today, and this is one of the few places in the global political debate where we have a meaningful choice to be made about where we steer this,” he explains.
“If we don’t do anything, if we go along with the status quo, we’re going to have a mass surveillance world.
“And what I mean by that is that we’re not just worried about the UK as a government, we’re worried about every government in the world doing this – even the smallest ones – and additional companies being able to do this, additional criminals being able to do this, and having access to the entirety of the human pool of communications that’s washing back and forth across the Earth.”
Mechanics of surveillance
While the vast majority of people have heard about Edward Snowden and the revelations about the NSA’s “bulk collection” practices, few of us stopped to really investigate the exact details of what was happening.
Luckily, Snowden, as a former Hawaii-based NSA contractor on $122,000 a year, has pretty detailed knowledge of what he more plainly describes as mass surveillance, and particularly its use in different countries.
“When you communicate with a server, it’s very likely not in your country. It’s somewhere else in the world, and as soon as that communication leaves your borders, you lose those protections; it’s sort of a free-for-all. Anyone can intercept it, they can analyse it, they can monitor it, they can store it for increasing and ultimately permanent periods of time,” he explains.
Terrorists are not the key target; these powers don’t usefully thwart them
“The systems are all collected and put into one bucket. It gets filled in Canada; it gets filled in the UK; it gets filled in the US; it gets filled in New Zealand; it gets filled in Australia. But they’re all searchable from the same user tokens.”
“Based on which agency you work for, based on what sort of authorities you’ve been provided on the technical side of it determines which bucket you get to search,” adds Snowden.
“But really they all flow to the same home. This is called a federated query system.
“So you send one search, it goes to all these buckets around the world, and it searches through everybody’s communications – all of your private lives – and it notices anything interesting.”
Truth behind terrorism
The main argument for this surveillance has been terrorism, the political excuse of the century that has justified everything from the US’ Patriot Act to the UK’s planned departure from the European Convention on Human Rights.
But according to Snowden, the reality is quite different.
“When we look at the full-on mass surveillance watching everyone in the country in the United States, it doesn’t work,” he says.
“It didn’t stop the attacks in Boston, where we knew who these individuals were, it didn’t stop the underwear bomber, whose father had walked into an embassy and warned us about this individual before he walked onto an airplane, and it’s not going to stop the next attacks either because they’re not public safety programmes, they’re spying programmes.”
In terms of an asset for spying, this form of mass surveillance is, according to Snowden, unparalled in its ability to
We cannot simply scare people into giving up their rights
“They are extraordinarily valuable in terms of spying. You can pick any individual and learn everything about them,” he explains.
“That’s not necessarily going to help stop terrorist attacks, because Bin Laden, for example, stopped using a cell phone in 1998. Terrorists are not the key target; these powers don’t usefully thwart them.
“But they do help you understand who’s involved in environmental activism, they do help you know who’s involved in trade negotiations that you want an advantage in as a government, they do help you know about the military organisations of foreign countries, and some of these things are valuable, and we do want to retain these capabilities to some extent.”
Providing a choice
Snowden argues that the issue is that governments have been fundamentally dishonest about the way they represent these programmes, and in doing so have denied us the ability to choose whether we consider the information gained to be worth the privacy we have lost.
“We have to have honesty; we cannot simply scare people into giving up their rights on the basis that ‘oh, this protects us from terrorism’,” he says.
“The question that we as a society have to ask is are our collective rights worth a small relative advantage in our ability to spy on other countries and foreign citizens?
“I have my opinion about that, but we all collectively have to come to an opinion about that and we have to bargain
forcefully and demand that the government recognise that mass surveillance does not prevent acts of terrorism.”
Power to seize
It may surprise you to learn that Snowden himself is not especially radical in his views about governments’ ability to access their citizens’ data. He does not in any way condone mass surveillance, but at the same time he does regard lawful access with the digital equivalent of a warrant to be acceptable.
“I think it’s reasonable that the government, when it has a warrant from a court, enjoy extraordinary powers,” he says.
“This is no different from having the police able to get a warrant to search your house, kick in your door because they think you’re an arms dealer or something. There needs to be a process involved that needs to be public and needs to be challengeable in court at all times.”
He sees this approach, however, as a long way from the current reality.
“This whole pre-criminal investigation where we watch everybody the whole time, just in case, is really an extraordinary departure from the Western liberal tradition. We are all today being monitored in advance of any criminal suspicion. And I think that’s terrifying, a deeply illiberal concept and something that we should reject.”
“In liberal societies we don’t typically require citizens to rearrange their activities, their lives, the way they go about their business, to make it easy for the police to do their work,” he says.
“When police officers knock on your door with a warrant, they don’t expect you to give them a tour. It’s supposed to be an adversarial process so that these extraordinary powers are used only when there’s no alternative.
“Only when they’re absolutely necessary and only when they are proportionate to the threat faced by these individuals. And that’s what we do by shifting it from mass communications, bulk collections, and put it back on the targeted, individualised basis where they have to show they have a reasonable suspicion that this particular individual is involved in wrongdoing ahead of interception.”
While there are continued efforts to bring an end to mass surveillance through legal means, most recently with the ruling in a New York federal appeals court that the collection of American’s metadata and phone records is unlawful, there is scepticism that governments will ever fully stop mass surveillance due to its tremendous spying benefits.
“We’re losing leverage. Governments are increasingly gaining more power and we are increasingly losing our ability to control that power and even to be aware of that power,” he says.
Although he is keen to remind everyone that he is just the “mechanism of disclosure”, Snowden does have some ideas about how we can turn the tables.
“Fundamentally, changes to the fabric of the Internet, our methods of communication, can enforce our rights, they can enforce our liberties, our values, on governments,” he says.
Increasingly all of our elected officials are pulled from the same class
“By leaning on companies, by leaning on infrastructure providers, by leaning on researchers, graduate students, postdocs, even undergrads to look at the challenges of having untrusted Internet, we can restructure that communications fabric in a way that’s encrypted.
“And by encrypted I mean the only people who can read and understand the communications across those wires are the people at the two distant ends. This is called end-to-end encryption, and what we’re doing there is making it much more difficult to perform mass surveillance.”
Not only does he believe this is the way forward, but suspects that this will be the likely scenario as we seek to resolve this issue.
“I think it is more likely than not that the technical side of the argument will come in, because it’s much easier, I think, to protect communications rather than it is to enforce legislation in every country in the world.”
Long road ahead
However, the future is likely to be fraught with challenges as we seek to put an end to mass surveillance, Snowden warns.
“I think we’re going to see disasters on both sides, I think we’re going to see it exploited callously and relentlessly by governments to purposes that undermine the progress of the public’s interest in favour of the elite’s interests,” he says.
“Increasingly all of our elected officials are pulled from the same class. These aren’t normal people; they’re not like you and me.
“And when we have these people representing everyone in our society, millions of people, the question becomes, are we really going to get policies that reflect the broad social interests, the broad public interests, or more of class interests?”
However, this does not mean we should give up, and simply ignore mass surveillance as we get on with our daily lives.
“We have to at least say that this is happening. We can’t wish it away, we can’t say that it’s something that it’s not. We have to confront the reality of our world, and make the hard decisions about which way we want to move forward,” he advises.
Having, by his own admission, wrecked his life to bring us this information, we would expect Snowden to be deeply concerned about the prospect that mass surveillance may continue.
However, he is surprisingly at peace with the idea.
“It’s very possible that this will be debated by governments, it will be debated by the public, and nothing will change,” he says.
“But that’s alright. I did my part. All I was was a mechanism. So I’m ultimately satisfied that we know a little bit more about how the world really works.”
But as a man currently stranded in Russia, with little prospect of being able to return to his home country, does Snowden worry about how his decision will affect his life going forward? Apparently not.
“Weirdly I don’t think about my future,” he says, with a look of genuine contentment.
“One of the unexpectedly liberating things of becoming this global fugitive is the fact that you don’t worry so much about tomorrow. You think more about today, and unexpectedly, I like that very much.”