Civil Liberties

Edward Snowden and NSA Flack Duke it Out (Sort of) Over Spying in TED Talks


Edward Snowden surprised a lot of people, no less the National Security Agency, by showing up at TED 2014 in Vancouver, Canada. Well, he "showed up" by video link to answer questions posed by Chris Anderson. Anderson then offered the NSA a chance to respond if it so chose—which it did, also by video link. The contrast between the two interviews is interesting, with the whistleblower discussing surveillance and Richard Ledgett, deputy director of the National Security Agency, complaining about disclosures and trying to put a positive spin on the spooks' roles.

In part, Edward Snowden says:

The best way to understand PRISM, because there's been a little bit of controversy, is to first talk about what PRISM isn't. Much of the debate in the U.S. has been about metadata. They've said it's just metadata, it's just metadata, and they're talking about a specific legal authority called Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That allows sort of a warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance of the entire country's phone records, things like that—who you're talking to, when you're talking to them, where you traveled. These are all metadata events. PRISM is about content. It's a program through which the government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America to do its dirty work for the NSA. And even though some of these companies did resist, even though some of them—I believe Yahoo was one of them — challenged them in court, they all lost, because it was never tried by an open court. They were only tried by a secret court. And something that we've seen, something about the PRISM program that's very concerning to me is, there's been a talking point in the U.S. government where they've said 15 federal judges have reviewed these programs and found them to be lawful, but what they don't tell you is those are secret judges in a secret court based on secret interpretations of law that's considered 34,000 warrant requests over 33 years, and in 33 years only rejected 11 government requests. These aren't the people that we want deciding what the role of corporate America in a free and open Internet should be.

A full transcript of his presentation offers the details of his exchange.

The National Security Agency took exception to Snowden's characterization of the surveillance agency as a bunch of privacy-violating snoops who operate behind the scenes with the blessing of secretive rubber-stamp courts. Richard Ledgett took on the task of providing the NSA's official response.

"There were some kernels of truth in there but a lot of extrapolations and half truths," he said, before calling for a "fact-based conversation."

He then went on to praise the quality of NSA personnel and the wide variety of outlets Snowden should have used, in the NSA's humble opinion, to address his concerns about domestic spying. 

In response, Chris Anderson pointed out that official channels didn't work out so well for other NSA whistleblowers.

In fact, Snowden's predecessors on the path of disclosure faced prosecution, and praised his headline-grabbing alternative means of reaching the public.

Ledgett concedes that many private businesses are in a tough situation because the U.S. government compels them to secretly reveal their users' data—but he justifies it by claiming that other governments do the same thing.