By Wendy Murray
Yesterday, January 23, American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, answered questions put live to him through the Twitter hashtag #AskSnowden. Snowden is currently living in exile in Russia for leaking secret documents of the NSA (National Security Agency) to major media outlets, revealing details of domestic and global surveillance schemes run by the NSA. Since his disclosures in May of 2013 a firestorm of public debate has ensued, along with intense scrutiny of current policy. In a speech given January 17 President Obama admitted “the risk of government overreach, the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security, also became more pronounced.” (Read the full speech.)
Snowden’s responses in the live format were slow–challenging the patience of Twitter followers. The system seemed labored, presumably because of the millions of participants trying to log on. Even so, he answered several questions, some of which I’ve highlighted at the end of this post.
In any case the interval between Snowden’s typed answers availed time to scan the many questions put to him. Apart from the obligatory obscenities and vitriol — I was impressed by the intelligence and earnestness of many questioners. I was likewise encouraged to be part of an in situ discussion that was robust and (for the most part) intelligent. For me, the questions revealed as much about the troubling scenario as did the few answers Snowden remitted. I have compiled a cursory sampling of a few of the well-thought-out questions put to Snowden:
@f——- What’s the worst and most realistic harm from bulk collection of data? Why do you think it outweighs national security?
@cl—— A big deep thank you from a Californian who worked with the DOJ [Department of Justice]. I applaud your efforts and public demeanor. Way to go!
@lo—– How do we deal w/ the driving forces of mass surveillance which is primarily economic motivators of Big Oil, Telecoms?
@Sh—— If you could say three things to someone considering leaking files and becoming a whistleblower…what would they be?
@J—–_D—– How many classified documents did you acquire? How many did you personally read? How many describe illegal programs?
@Ath——– Is bulk collection by non-govt entities like Google & Facebook harmful on its own, or is it harmful because govt accesses it?
@man——- Do you fear that democratic control is already flawed because politicians fear to be blackmailed by #NSA or #GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] intel?
@Bu—— Where do we go from here?
@io——- How might each person help to concretely fix our political systems and to restore nearly forgotten constitutional liberties?
@De—— #AskSnowden I’ve read reports that the private sector [spying] dwarfs govt sec. How pervasive is corporate spying on individuals?
@D——AG— Does the US economy profits [sic] from the data collection programs?
@a—–_l—– Is there still hope for the Internet? Or is it broken beyond repair? #AskSnowden
@J—–M—– Has the USA or NSA leaked info to Discredit Politicians or other World Citizens that were NOT terrorists?
Snowden answered a few questions from which I include a selected portion here:
From CNN’s Jake Tapper
Snowden: Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself. The hundred-year-old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, forbids a public-interest defense. This is especially frustrating because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury. Maybe when Congress comes together to end the programs the PCLOB [Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board] just announced were illegal, they’ll reform the Whistleblower Protection Act, and we’ll see a mechanism for all Americans, no matter who they work for, to get a fair trial.
From @fe—— What’s the worst and most realistic harm from bulk collection of data? Why do you think it outweighs national security?
Snowden: The worst and happening-right-now harm of bulk collection — which again, is a euphemism for mass surveillance — is two-fold.
The first is the chilling effect, which is well-understood. Study after study has show that human behavior changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively *are* less free.
The second, less understood but far more sinister effect of these classified programs, is that they effectively create “permanent records” of our daily activities, even in the absence of any wrongdoing on our part. This enables a capability called “retroactive investigation,” where once you come to the government’s attention, they’ve got a very complete record of your daily activity going back, under current law, often as far as five years.
You might not remember where you went to dinner on June 12th 2009, but the government does. The power these records represent can’t be overstated. In fact, researchers have referred to this sort of data gathering as resulting in “databases of ruin,” where harmful and embarrassing details exist about even the most innocent individuals.
The fact that these records are gathered without the government having any reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying the seizure of data is so divorced from the domain of reason as to be incapable of ever being made lawful at all, and this view was endorsed as recently as today by the federal government’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
Fundamentally, a society in which the pervasive monitoring of the sum of civil activity becomes routine is turning from the traditions of liberty toward what is an inherently illiberal infrastructure of preemptive investigation, a sort of quantified state where the least of actions are measured for propriety. I don’t seek to pass judgment in favor or against such a state in the short time I have here, only to declare that it is not the one we inherited, and should we as a society embrace it, it should be the result of public decision rather than closed conference.
From @m——Recently several threats have been made on your life by the intelligence community. Are you afraid for your life? Thoughts? #AskSnowden
It’s concerning, to me, but primarily for reasons you might not expect. That current, serving officials of our government are so comfortable in their authority that they’re willing to tell reporters on the record that they think the due process protections of the Fifth Amendment of our Constitution are outdated concepts. These are the same officials telling us to trust that they’ll honor the Fourth and First Amendments. This should bother all of us. The fact that it’s also a direct threat to my life is something I am aware of, but I’m not going to be intimidated.
Doing the right thing means having no regrets.
(Read Why I Support Edward Snowden.)
(View the entire exchange with Snowden.)