recode decode

Best Of: Edward Snowden | Recode Decode with Kara Swisher

Check out the Recode Decode Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Surveillance is a matter of the rights of citizens being redefined without their knowledge
    • Nobody is asking the government to reveal the names of terrorist suspects or disclose military operations. Those arguments miss the point. 
  • In the government’s eyes, anyone who exposes systemic abuse of power is legally an activist rather than a whistleblower and therefore you have no legal protections
  • Whistleblowing laws are aimed at individual abuse of office and cannot be readily used against systemic abuse
  • Jury law classifies whistleblowing as a strict liability crime which means your intentions do not matter to the case
    • The jury is explicitly forbidden from asking why you did it, and you’re explicitly forbidden from telling the jury why you did it
    • Snowden says he will go to trial on the one condition that the government allows the jury to consider whether or not his crime was justified
  • The government’s unclassified and classified reports on government surveillance were two different documents entirely
    • The unclassified reports were fluffed up to seem benign and not at all like what they were really doing
    • Only ~30 members of Congress and a handful of IC members are allowed to see the classified version so everyone else in the government has to take the word of the unclassified version
  • Intelligence agencies often have turf wars over budget and responsibilities which leads to them hiding information from each other and not working together
    • According to the government, we had the information to prevent 9/11 but the different intelligence agencies were hiding the pieces from each other
  • “The advance of technology is inevitable and technology can do very good things for the world, but we need to understand that there must be limits on how that technological power and influence can be applied”Edward Snowden
  • “We have no software liability laws in the United States, and that is why every app that’s out there is so fundamentally insecure” – Edward Snowden
    • If your data is leaked years down the line there’s not much that can be done

Books Mentioned

  • Permanent Record is Edward Snowden’s autobiography detailing his time at the CIA and NSA and his views on authoritarianism, democracy, and privacy

Intro

  • Edward Snowden (@Snowden) is an American whistleblower currently living in Moscow with political asylum
  • Host: Kara Swisher (@karaswisher)

Government Definitions

  • “There’s a lot of misapplication of terms, particularly the distinction of what is a leaker and what is a whistleblower. The government argues, of course, they are the ones who decide.”Edward Snowden
    • In the government’s eyes, anyone who exposes systemic abuse of power is legally an activist rather than a whistleblower
    • Therefore, you have no legal protections 
  • The major problem with whistleblowing laws is that they limit what you can reveal and when you can reveal it
    • “This is because the whistleblowing laws are designed around this concept of waste, fraud, and abuse” – Edward Snowden
    • They are aimed at individual abuse of office and cannot be readily used against systemic abuse
  • The traditional thinking is that the system of checks and balances would correct any institutional wrongdoings 
    • But if the system is in on it what incentive do they have to check themselves?
  • Jury law classifies whistleblowing as a strict liability crime which means your intentions do not matter to the case
    • The jury is explicitly forbidden from asking why you did it, and you’re explicitly forbidden from telling the jury why you did it
    • “The only question the jury gets to consider is ‘was this law broken’ not ‘was this justified’”Edward Snowden
      • Even murders can be justified in self-defense 

History of Whistleblowing

  • There is no history of proper whistleblowing channels ever successfully achieving governmental reform in the US
    • There are records of government institutions intervening to stop whistleblowers
    • We have seen whistleblowing channels successfully lead to corporate reform though
  • Whistleblowers of institutional corruption, like Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers, have simply been charged with being a traitor just as Edward Snowden has 
  • The Espionage Act makes no distinction between leaking government information to journalists or foreign enemies
  • If you go through the proper whistleblowing channels, different governmental institutions will seek to stop you as they have previously
  • In the past, whenever intelligence agencies failed to see a catastrophe coming they have clamped down harder in response
    • We saw this after Pearl Harbor and again after 9/11
  • The US government has a history of illegally detaining and torturing people deemed a threat
    • One method has been to imprison people on ships in international waters so the government wouldn’t have to report their presence

Treason?

  • Contrary to popular belief, Edward Snowden isn’t charged with treason
    • Treason requires incredibly strict circumstances to be charged with
  • Most whistleblowers are often labeled as “treasonous” by politicians in order to rile people against them though
    • Whistleblowers are labeled as outsiders so many people will reflexively not even consider whether or not they were justified
  • The EU apparently privately told Snowden that they supported him but couldn’t grant him asylum for fear of US retaliation
  • In the wake of 9/11, Edward Snowden was a diehard patriot who wanted to go fight in Iraq and believed everything the government said
    • When you love your country you can put an unreasonable amount of trust in the government that runs your country
  • The initial mainstream narrative was that Snowden was a Chinese asset because he met journalists in Hong Kong. Once Snowden became trapped in Moscow the story changed to him being a Russian asset. 

The Press

  • As the government fails us more, there is an increasing burden put on the press to keep the government in check 
    • “The question that we have is will they be able to fulfill the role that we need them to?” – Edward Snowden
    • There is doubt about this as the NYT has previously sat on a whistleblowing story on George W. Bush until after the 2004 election passed on a request from the White House

How Intelligence Agencies Work

  • “The fewer people that know a secret the easier it is to protect it. This is how intelligence agencies work.” – Edward Snowden
    • Intelligence agencies are compartmentalized which means that each office doesn’t know what the other ones are doing
  • Intelligence agencies often have turf wars over budget and responsibilities which leads to them hiding information from each other and not working together
    • According to the government, we had the information to prevent 9/11 but the different intelligence agencies were hiding the pieces from each other
      • Each agency wanted the individual credit for solving the case 
  • The government’s unclassified and classified reports on government surveillance were two different documents entirely
    • The unclassified reports were fluffed up to seem benign and not at all like what they were really doing
    • Only ~30 members of Congress and a handful of intelligence community (IC) members are allowed to see the classified version so everyone else in the government has to take the word of the unclassified version
  • Snowden believes the overclassification and increasingly secretive nature of the government is a greater threat to national security than increased transparency

Legitimacy & Proficiency

  • “In a democracy, the government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. But, we all know that consent is only meaningful if it’s informed.”Edward Snowden
  • This is a matter of the rights of citizens being redefined without their knowledge
    • Nobody is asking the government to reveal the names of terrorist suspects or disclose military operations. Those arguments miss the point. 
  • The government doesn’t know how to manage computer systems so they allow outside contractors access to their systems, including classified information, to run it for them
    • “They have access to all this classified material. They can walk out of the building with it and the government will never understand what they took.” – Edward Snowden

Was There No Other Way?

  • “The number of documents that I have revealed, that I have published, that I have disclosed is zero. What I did was I gathered evidence.”Edward Snowden
    • “Material that I believe showed unlawful, unconstitutional, or unethical behavior on the part of the United States intelligence community” 
  • Snowden gave the material to journalists on the condition that they only publish stories they deem to be in the national interest and give the government advance notice of publication
    • With the advance notice, the government was also given a right to argue against the publication of any material that may harm national security
  • The material was then published and though the government alleges it damaged national security though no evidence has been presented to support that argument yet
  • Snowden says he will go to trial on the one condition that the government allows the jury to consider whether or not his crime was justified

Origins of Internet Surveillance

  • During the dawn of the internet, most users viewed the internet as a Wild West where anybody could freely talk to each other
  • “The internet, because it was a non-commercial space, was a cooperative and creative space” – Edward Snowden
    • As the internet became commercialized, the first businesses on it laid the foundations for the modern surveillance state through their data policy
    • The internet became easier to use but it also became more exploitative and enclosed

Tech Companies

  • “There is a class led by Mark Zuckerberg that is moving to toward the maximization of technological power and influence that can be applied to society”Edward Snowden
    • “They believe they can profit by it or they can better use the influence that their systems provide to direct the world into a better direction. They want the technocratic future.” 
  • “The advance of technology is inevitable and technology can do very good things for the world, but we need to understand that there must be limits on how that technological power and influence can be applied”Edward Snowden
  • Whenever tech companies talk about their roles data collection in abstract terms you have to understand that it’s people being exploited not data
    • It can be easy to ignore such topics because it may seem hypothetical, but ultimately it’s data about real people 
  • “We have no software liability laws in the United States, and that is why every app that’s out there is so fundamentally insecure”Edward Snowden
    • If your data is leaked years down the line there’s not much that can be done
    • One simple fix for this is to limit how long a company can hold onto your data
  • “The United States is perhaps the only developed democracy in the world that does not have a basic privacy law for standard consumer information” – Edward Snowden

Is Government or Corporate Expansion More Dangerous?

  • “I think it’s actually a mistake to see them as different threats”Edward Snowden
    • What Facebook or Google does on a fundamental level is to keep private records and information about your life which is also what the NSA and CIA does
  • Government and corporate overreach are more like different aspects of the same threat to the right of privacy
    • The government has access to a larger scale of data and resources in its data collection
    • Tech companies don’t have as much resources but they aren’t bound by the same rules as the government in data collection

Snowden’s OPSEC

  • Signal and Wire for messenger apps
    • Both of these use end-to-end encryption meaning only the sender and receiver can read your messages
  • Qubes OS for PC and GrapheneOS for android phones
  • Avoid Google android phones because they bake tracking software into them
  • “There is the Tor Project which I believe is still the most important anti-censorship network on the internet today” – Edward Snowden

Additional Notes

  • It’s totally plausible that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and it would be trivial to produce documented proof of it
    • What’s worrying to Snowden about the claims of Russian interference is that the intelligence community won’t show the proof 
  • The argument that if you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide is attributed to Joseph Goebbel’s Nazi propaganda
  • When Snowden refers to the deep state he is referring to senior career government officials who work in capacities of power over many years, sometimes decades, without being elected
Recode Decode : , , , , , , , ,
Notes By TD

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 12,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks