Edward Snowden on the future of surveillance

He destroyed his life to tell us about inter-governmental mass surveillance, so what does Edward Snowden think the future holds for our data?

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
provide information.

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.

photo 1

“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.”

Technical solution

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.

Snowden’s peace

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.

promo-article-page-top“Before any of this happened, I had a much more forward-looking perspective. You think about retirement; you think about vacations; you think about where you’re going next.

“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.”

Scientists implant device to boost human memory

Scientists have enhanced human memory for the first time with a “memory prosthesis” brain implant. The team behind the device say it can boost performance on memory tests by up to 30%, and a similar approach may work for enhancing other brain skills, such as vision or movement.

Source: New Scientist

Astronomers discover Earth-sized world 11 light years away

A planet, Ross 128 b, has been discovered in orbit around a red dwarf star just 11 light years from the Sun. The planet is 35% more massive than Earth, and it likely exists at the edge of the small, relatively faint star's habitable zone even though it is 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun.

Source: Ars Technica

An algorithm can see what you've learned before going to sleep

Researcher fed the brain activity from sleeping subjects to a machine learning algorithm, and it was able to determine what the subject had learned before falling asleep. In other words, an algorithm was able to effectively ‘read’ electrical activity from sleeping brains and determine what they were memorising as a result.

Source: Motherboard

Elon Musk unveils Tesla Truck and Tesla Roadster

Elon Musk has unveiled the long-anticipated 'Tesla Semi' – the company's first electric articulated lorry. The vehicle has a range of 500 miles on a single charge, and will go into production in 2019. Unexpectedly, Tesla also revealed a new Roadster, which will have a range of close to 1,000km (620 miles) on a single charge and will do 0-100mph in 4.2 seconds.

Source: BBC

Arrivo plans to build 200mph hyperloop-lite track

Arrivo, the company founded by former Hyperloop One engineer Brogan BamBrogan, has announced a partnership with Colorado’s Department of Transportation. Arrivo will now build a magnetised track to transport existing vehicles, cargo sleds and specially designed vehicles alongside preexisting freeways at 200mph in the city of Denver.

Source: The Verge

Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot can now do backflips

It's been a busy week for Boston Dynamics, first the company revealed it SpotMini robot dog was getting an upgrade, and now the company has shared a video of its Atlas humanoid robot leaping from platforms and doing a backflip. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but it's not easy to make a robot do a backflip, so how Boston Dynamics has managed it is anyone's guess.

Source: WIRED

The all new Factor Magazine is here – your guide to how today, tomorrow and beyond are being shaped

Guess who’s back, back again.

It’s been a few months, but Factor has returned with a bigger and better format, bringing the same future news and discussion, but on a platform that you can read on any device.

We’ve been working towards this for a long, long time: this is how we’ve always wanted the magazine to look, and we’re so happy to share this with you. It can be viewed on any web browser, on anything from a mobile to a monster PC, and if you’re on a desktop or laptop, click the button in the bottom right-hand corner for the ultimate shiny reading experience. A digital magazine has never looked this good. Probably.

Unfortunately that means no more iPad app, but as you can easily read the magazine from an iPad web browser, we hope you’ll agree that what we’ve gained is so much better than what’s been lost.

So anyway, here it is: the Winter 2017 issue of Factor, the first issue of the quarterly version of the magazine.

In case any of you are worrying about us publishing the magazine quarterly, trust us you don’t need to. We’ve produced the biggest issue of Factor ever, so packed with futuristic awesomeness, that we’ve had to divide it into three sections: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond.

Today deals with the futuristic present, as much of what we think of as ‘the future’ already exists today. We look at how humanoid robots are being employed as co-workers, hear from the legendary Richard Stallman about the vanishing state of privacy and discover how automation is already taking jobs. Plus, we take a light hearted look at the futuristic world of Mr Tesla, Elon Musk, and provide our festive present suggestions in a bumper futuristic gift guide.

Moving on to Tomorrow, and it’s all about the world of the next few decades, as technologies that are in development now reach fruition and seep into our everyday lives. We consider how flying cars are inching towards reality, with a look at both Lilium and the newly announced UberAir, and find out how driverless delivery may be the first true instance of the self-driving future.  Plus, we also look at the Christmas dinners of the future, because why the hell not.

Finally, in Beyond we look at the way-out future that many of us probably won’t live to see, but is supremely cool to think about. We ask leading futurists to predict what’s in store in the 22nd century – not the most positive of pictures, unfortunately – and consider what jobs will remain in a post-automation world. Plus, we look at the potential first homes of the human race beyond the solar system, and check out how asteroid mining is set to shape off-earth development.

Take a look, and if you like what you see and read, please share the magazine with your friends, or tell us what you think. This is a completely free magazine, with not an ad in sight, so it’s always good to know that it’s worth the effort.