Sunday, October 12, 2014

John Naughton interview with Edward Snowden

John Naughton interviewed Edward Snowden at the Observer Ideas event this afternoon.

The YouTube version of the video I originally embedded here is no longer showing the message "Please stand by. We're experiencing technical difficulties."

My notes on the interview below. These may be added to sporadically as and when I get time to type them up.

JN: In June 2013 the world was astonished by some dramatic revelations - first published in the Guardian which won a Pulitzer prize for the work, the first time a British newspaper has ever won a Pulitzer - via a trove of top secret documents released by a young geek, Edward Snowden, of the extent of GCHQ and NSA snooping. He's the most famous geek in history, the most hunted man on the planet and the most courageous geek that JN knows. He left a comfortable lifestyle in Hawaii, flew to Hong Kong where he met trusted journalists and then onto Moscow, en route to what he believed would be Latin America. At that point the US government revoked his passport effectively rendering him stateless in Russia.


They could have let him fly to Latin America and had some CIA operatives bundle him into a plane and render him to solitary confinement in New Mexico or Guantanamo or somewhere else.

Using Skype for the interview and audience need to be aware that the definition of technology is something that nearly works.

Having some problems connecting. Could be GCHQ or something else.

First question - what comes across in the leaked documents is the apparently close working relationship between the NSA and GCHQ. But computer security community refer to GCHQ as the "overseas franchise of the NSA". Is that an accurate characterisation of the relationship? Or is GCHQ a bigger player than we think and the documents might suggest?

At this point comms fail.

There's some back and forth and eventually they get partially restored - we can hear Snowden but he can't hear John's questions. So off screen, Guardian journalist, Carol Cadwalladr, types John Naughton's questions for Edward Snowden to read.

Eventually Snowden receives the question.

ES: Yes. GCHQ is a big player. There is an extraordinarily large and secret and unaccountable mass surveillance system in the US. But constitutional protections prohibit even the passing of laws that might enable these programs. Despite this it is happening in the US.

In the UK you don't have the same constitutional limits on the sort of laws that parliament can pass. We've seen the creation of a system of regulations where basically anything goes. GCHQ and other government spy agencies can do anything they want. There are no limits on their capabilities.

They collect everything that might be of interest to them - basically a 5 year backlog of all the activities of citizens of the UK e.g. through collections of their metadata records. Then they say we collected this information but we won't look at it. We'll protect it through some kind of policy protections, and limited rules. Though we'll watch all the time  we won't look at what we've gathered unless we go through a certain procedure.

Even if you believe that is reasonable -
it's not because that is not how rights work - you don't have to say why you deserve privacy - it's up to the government to justify it's intrusions into your rights - you don't have to justify why you need a right or it's not a right at all
- but even if you do think this is reasonable, these policy rules for access to that information are not uniformly applied.  It's basically open season...

GCHQ go much further than the NSA because they use unlawfully collected information to pursue basically criminal prosecutions. And they use this to share with other countries. They use intelligence powers for law enforcement purposes and that is dangerous.

Evidence is collected against us but we don't have the opportunity to challenge it in the courts. Judges are not aware where this evidence originates from. This undermines the system of laws and system of justice upon which we all rely.

JN: The other side of this coin are the commercial companies like Google. Yesterday you said some very hard things about Google, Facebook and Dropbox. Are you seriously suggesting people should avoid using services provided by these companies?

[At this point there is a delay and interference on the connection which prompts John to quip "this question is being parsed by someone in the intelligence community". That got a laugh]

ES: What I'm trying to say is not that they are the worst thing on planet earth. What I'm saying is that when we as consumers have a choice between 2 services, one hta tprotects your privacy and one actively hostile to privacy, we should support the one that supports our rights, the one that encodes it into their policies.

Facebook is one example where it is very difficult to find alternatives. Dropbox, however, is not. There are many many alternatives to Dropbox. Dropbox say they encrypt  your data  but they keep the key. So an government in the world from the US to the UK to China can request access to your files and Dropbox can provide it.

SpiderOak is a better alternative. They don't permit themselves that capability. Because if government is going to issue a warrant it should go to you, the person that has control of this information; not a corporation that can't bring the same challenges as you because they won't have standing - it is not their privacy being violated.

JN: The extent of public disquiet about what intelligence agencies are doing varies across the world. For example in the UK most people seem very relaxed about what the documents you released have revealed. If that is the case across the world then surely nothing much is going to happen despite the revealations?

ES: I don't think it is true that because the public reacts less strongly in one jurisdiction than another that there will necessarily be no change.  When I initially came out about this and talked to technologists and computer scientists about this problem there are broadly two tracts.

The first is political.

In our national legislatures we can push for reform, for increased respect for rights, a restoration of respect for rights that we've lost in the "terrorism era".

There are many countries around the world and not just the UK where we have this problem with public engagement. In the US uniformly every newspaper across the country reported on this scandal and they talked about why we need to change, what kind of reforms are needed and they debated where the line should be drawn.

In the UK we haven't seen that happen. Only one newspaper, The Guardian, did that. All the other papers - I don't know why, whether it is cultural because they felt they'd been cut out of the story or cut out of information sharing - didn't cover it. Or covered it in a hostile way that I think did a disservice to the public.

And even when legislatures push back with the notion it doesn't really matter what the public feels, we are the rulers, we will decide; if you have a problem with that vote us out; but we control the media so you're not going to do that either.

Political reform is a challenge in many places around the world but that's always been the case.

However, even if there is even only one part of the world - it can be Germany or the US or London - where we have a technical community that believes this is a real problem - mass surveillance & GCHQ strategy of amassing a haystack of human lives and sorting through it whenever they want trying to find needles - is contrary to the values we as a society hold, they can institute protections of a technical variety that enforce our rights in a way that's not dependent on national laws.

[RC: That's optimistic]

Because lets say in UK, supposing we pass robust new reforms that prevented infringement of rights of citizens of UK by intelligence agencies. Well that is not going to restrict Chinese government or governments of Latin America, US, Russia, Africa or other country or even France.

If things are not encoded or on a technical level; if they are not enforced at the level of systems rather than just words on a page they are not really going to be meaningful when all our systems are reliant on cross border international relations.

[RC: Problem with relying on this approach is not many people understand the technology well enough to be able to check if it is doing what it says its doing. Evoting being a case in point]

We need international solutions for global problems.

JN: I'd like to talk to you about technical stuff but I'm getting a lot of pressure form the audience to ask you about yourself. Here's a question someone's thrown at me - you were basically living in paradise in Hawaii, with pole dancer for a girlfriend. That's most people's dream life. Are you mad?  (John additionally quipped whilst waiting for the question to be relayed that it wasn't his idea of a dream life but there you go).

ES: You know... ah... ... [laughter from audience] ... I've had to make a lot of sacrifices. I risked my freedom. I lost my job. I lost my home. I haven't been able to relate to family the way I once did. And I can't return to my home country. That's .. a lot to give up. But my biggest fear when I did this was not what would happen to me. I didn't care what would happen to me. Because this is not about me. I'm simply the mechanism of revelation.

What matters is that in our times - this post 9/11 period, this post 7/7 period - we have seen the public increasingly lose rights again and again to a state structure, a security structure. It's becoming increasingly empowered. At the same time it's becoming increasingly secret.

So the big questions that go beyond surveillance into what kind of world do we want to live?

Do we want to live in a world where government make decisions for the whole of society behind closed doors without accountability to public opinion or to our shared laws?

When you ask me this I have to say no. The country that gave us the Magna Carta believes there are lines. There are limits that even the government must comply to.  And when government unchains itself from any kind of restrictions, when government says
the ends justify the means
we have transitioned from the point of a democratic liberal society into one that is more authoritarian.

And the question is - is this really something that officials can determine on their own. OR is that a decision for the public? And we can't make these decisions if we don't know about them.

All democratic societies are founded on the principle that the consent of the governed is from where all governments draw their legitimacy. An consent is not meaningful if it is not informed.

And that is the challenge we saw last year and that's why we've seen the strength of the response we've had today. And, ultimately, I think that's why things will change.

We are transitioning out of the terror era and recognising that younger people today are the beginning of a post terror generation that have different values and are not prepared to give up their rights without seeing that these programs are necessary; and that they respect the foundation of our societies.

JN: Are you surprised that we now know there is a second whistleblower? Have you started something that is going to roll?

ES: I'm not. No.

I think it was inevitable. You know people have called me. They've had this big debate. Am I a hero? Am I a traitor?

First up it doesn't matter. These issues are not about me. They're about us. And it doesn't matter what happens to me. Whether I'm loved by history or whether I disappear into a hole.

[RC: Hope that doesn't happen literally]

We should not say this person is a hero. WE should not praise the hero we should praise the act. Because I'm an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. This other person, whoever they are, it is extraordinarily courageous that after seeing the thing that comes to whistleblowers before in the US - people had their lives destroyed, their carreers destroyed, thrown in prison for 35 years, that this person would stand up and put their life on the line because they believe they have a civic duty that they hold more dear than their self interest.  And that is something - I don't care who the individual is; I don't care whether they are the deepest darkest criminal - that is something we should respect.  WE should value and promote. Everyone has a role to play in government, a role to play in our societies. And if you believe in something you have to stand for something.

JN: Edward Snowden, thank you very much and I hope you have a nice weekend.

[Uproarious round of applause from the audience]

JN: I'd just like to thank you all for your forebearance. Remember what I said about technology - if it doesn't quite work, that's what technology is.

[More loud applause as John walks off the stage]

Compare of the event [need to check] comes on and notes: One of the reasons Edward Snowden agreed to do his first interview at a UK event was John Naughton. In discussions with his people they cited John's writing and how perceptive he had been about technology and the way he has covered the Snowden revelations over the last year or so.

[RC: Entirely appropriate John's terrific work should be publicly acknowledged in this way]

Additionally Carole Cadwalladr was also crucial. She pursued Edward Snowden's people and was typing John's questions to Snowden off stage and both John and Carole are a huge part of the reason you heard him today.

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