National security whistleblower Edward Snowden remains in exile in Russia, but on February 20, the former federal contractor who exposed government incursions on privacy spoke with reason's Nick Gillespie via a secure satellite link at Liberty Forum, a gathering of the Free State Project in Manchester, New Hampshire. For video of the interview, go to reason.com.
reason: Let's talk about Apple being requested by court order to unlock the cellphone 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?
Edward Snowden: This is an incredibly complex topic. First off, Google did come forward. Their CEO made some comments in the defense of the ability of private enterprises not to be constricted by government but to 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.
Is Apple the big champion of liberty and individual rights? It's not really about that. We're not looking for the perfect heroes here, right? Don't love the actor, love the act. In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings—which are of course legitimate crimes, this is an act of terrorism as it's been described—Apple said, "All right, 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."
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." This is deeply disturbing to me, because I know that we've had laboratory techniques since the 1990s that allow the FBI 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.
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. 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.
Whether it's Apple or Google or anybody else who at least challenges that assertion of authority and allows us to litigate it, 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 [FISA] 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. The government got a "no" from this court only 11 times.
reason: Is any communication really secure anymore?
Snowden: There are different kinds of surveillance. There's mass surveillance, which is typically done on communications in transit, 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 cellphone 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—if they are transiting electronically naked, 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. This is the property, of course, that spies like, whether they're corporate or they're state.
reason: That nobody even knows they're being spied on.
Snowden: Right. Does this mean that there's nothing that works? No. There are ways to shelter the content of the communication. If you think about what's in the email, or the register with Amazon.com, or the call that you made on a voice over IP system, or the text message that you send through a certain app, they can no longer read that.
All they can see is that those communications that were electronically naked have now been clothed. They've been armored. 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 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 café 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 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. For the Internet, they haven't made any changes to those programs.
reason: By all indications, confidence in government either to be effective or to do the right thing is at or near historic lows. How does government win back the trust?
Snowden: 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 and they know nothing about us. Because they are invested with powers and privileges that we don't have. They have the ability to direct the future of society, and as a result it is incumbent to assume a level of accountability to the public 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 ever existed before. At the same time, thanks to aggressive expansions of state secrecy authorities, the use of classification, and so on, they're excusing themselves from accountability to us at the same time they're trying to exert greater power over us. That I think leads to an inevitable result over time: Whether through good intentions or bad, the public is no longer partner to government, but merely subject to it.
reason: From your Twitter feed, it's clear you are following the presidential nomination process in the United States. You've talked about how there's really no difference between the two major parties on these issues. In 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?
Snowden: I should caveat this with the fact that I'm an engineer, not a politician. 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. That's 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, 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. What this means is that people go, "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 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: You're revoking a mandate. Now, this can't work forever. It works in the tactical sense, but we need to think more broadly—the kind of Samuel Adams sense where small groups of people who are politically passionate can light brushfires of liberty in the minds of men.
reason: A technical question: Can you vote in the election? Can you send in an absentee ballot?
Snowden: This is still a topic of…active research. [laughter]
reason: You're an autodidact in many ways. I don't see diplomas on the wall behind you. Talk a little bit about the process of how you educated yourself and how that plays into the types of educations that societies give people. Is it to liberate them? Is it to subjugate them?
Snowden: 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.
For me, yes, I did not graduate from high school. Instead I got a GED. I don't have a 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 one later on. 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.
reason: Ross Ulbricht 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?
reason: That was easy enough.
Snowden: Just to elaborate on that: The NSA and the United States are part of a large group called the Five Eyes Network. This is the United States, the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. And these five countries, they 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.
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 GCHQ, is the U.K. is allowed to use NSA systems that we built, that work in the United States and everything else, 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.
reason: With something like Silk Road, 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 minimizing harm that might arise from this?
Snowden: 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 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 re-evaluated 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 great powers are just going to 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 old, bad tools of political repression are increasingly losing their weight.
reason: The irony is not lost where you're sitting in an authoritarian regime talking about how people are freer and more empowered than ever.
Snowden: 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. The United States 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 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? 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. 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. They're not OK in the United States and they're not OK anywhere.
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 we are the example for the rest of the world to emulate. 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.
reason: What would be the conditions under which you would voluntarily return to the United States?
Snowden: It's evolved quite a bit. Originally, I volunteered myself for prison, but I said that 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. They wanted to nail a scalp on the wall as a warning to the others. 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—he told me that this was a mistake. Eventually he convinced me. To what do we owe our first loyalty? To law or to justice? To submit ourselves to a government that is 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.
Most people might be surprised by this, but I'm still fairly more trusting in the value of government and institutions than Daniel Ellsberg, who has just been an extraordinary crusader and a true radical in the best way for more than a generation now.
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. So it's still kind of a work-in-progress, but we'll see where it goes.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.