Today Edward Snowden addressed a live theater audience in Amsterdam via satellite from Moscow, where he’s resided since 2013. He offered his thoughts on Donald Trump, the current state of surveillance and what private citizens can do about it. Here are the eight most important takeaways from his livestream.
DONALD TRUMP IS NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM
Answering a question from the creator of encryption software PGP, Snowden commented that the main problem with mass-surveillance is not simply that Donald Trump has inherited it. Instead, the problem with mass surveillance is that is that, upon its creation, the tool was eventually going to land in unready hands, as it has with Trump. “I try not to look at this as the question of the single election of government. We see threats coming from across borders. For example, there is a Big Brother law in Russia. The Chinese have passed a new surveillance law. The United Kingdom is about to pass one of the most intrusive surveillance measures in western history.”
Snowden drew attention to the fact that while Donald Trump can now use mass surveillance, other countries are on the same path. “We are never farther than a single election away from how powers in [the United States] are used.”
IF GOVERNMENT CAN’T HONOR OUR PRIVACY, TECH SHOULD
In addressing what measures citizens can take, he points to the necessity for consumer electronics to become more user-friendly. “You don’t have to teach a journalist an encryption program. Instead, make this fabric work for the whole world. If we could not just support the human rights of countries, we could enforce them and guarantee them through our technology. We have not just the right to try, but the duty.”
OBAMA HAS BEEN A LARGE PART OF THE PROBLEM
“Barack Obama campaigned on ending mass surveillance, saying that he would hold certain Bush-era war crimes accountable. It was a moment where we believed that because the right person was in office, everything would change. Guantanamo bay, which he promised to close, is still open. He embraced the policies of mass-surveillance, he entrenched them. This is to say we shouldn’t put too much faith or fear in a president. This is just a president. If we want to pass on good values and make change, this is the power of the people not the politicians. Ultimately to see a change we must force it through ourselves. We cannot hope for an Obama.—and we can’t fear a Donald Trump. We should build it ourselves.”
ONLY CERTAIN CORPORATIONS CAN RESPECT YOUR PRIVACY
Snowden compared the companies Yahoo and Signal, when answering a question of which corporations or countries one should trust in a mass-surveillance world. Snowden referenced Yahoo’s scanning of emails then given to the government and paralleled that to a company called Signal, which fought the gag order that was issued to disclose its information. They “went to the ACLU, and they won in resisting the gag order. When they revealed what they had given to the government, it was nothing the government didn’t already have. This company wasn’t spying on its customers; they weren’t collecting records that could be turned over. As a business you should not collect information that you do not need.” Snowden encouraged that people should seek corporations that respect their privacy and don’t have databases of information that could be turned over and exploited.
“MASS SURVEILLANCE IS INEFFECTIVE”
Snowden noted how one White House panel found surveillance to be totally ineffective Rather than a large net encompassing everyone, Snowden emphasized that specific surveillance is more effective and that “Targeted surveillance… backed by a court, not an intrusive but a targeted way…doesn’t threaten the rights of others.”
He also said, “The U.S. government’s own staff, who aren’t liberal reformers, found that this kind of mass surveillance had never been useful. It had never made a concrete arrest. Espionage is about power. Countering terrorism is not a surveillance activity. When politicians ask to give up rights because terrorists exist now, terrorists have always existed. Traditional means have done well in resisting these things, why are we using means that the government itself deems unproductive.”
MASS SURVEILLANCE WOULD BE MASSIVELY DANGEROUS—IF IT WERE EFFECTIVE
Snowden said that change only happens by challenging the status quo, and if the government was able to know every challenge to the status quo, then civil progression may become impossible. Much of social progress has manifested through breaking the law, after all. “[The] abolition of slavery and housing of runaway slaves, civil rights—if the government says the law will be enforced unequivocally, then they are halting progress,” he said.
METADATA SHOULD BE DISGUISED
Snowden goes beyond campaigning that court orders should be required for call and text transcripts. Instead, he believes evidence of a call even taking place should be concealed. “Encryption protects your phone calls, texts, pictures—but it doesn’t disguise the fact that you did these things. These cyber footprints are called metadata and they are records about your activity. It has no meaningful legal protections. Even in the Netherlands, your metadata can be collected even without a court record. You can create a record of private lives without reading any of the content. We need [to] disguise that the call or text was ever even sent.”
THREE STEPS THE AVERAGE CITIZEN CAN TAKE TO PROTECT THEIR PRIVACY
Snowden provided three steps for protecting your privacy.
1. “Monitor your search engine usage and what you search.” Google collects data on what you look for and stores all of it. That database is either accessible or already accessed by a government.
2. “Use services like Signal to encrypt your communications.”
Utilize technology or services that have your privacy in mind. Make sure their consumer interest is in protecting you.
3. “Use Tor Browser” Tor is an IP-disguising browser that bounces your internet access between countless other computers, essentially making it more difficult to tell which computer is yours and what you’re accessing.
Ultimately, Snowden was incredibly assuring on the power of the average citizen against government surveillance. At a scary time, that may just be the right amount of pragmatic hope.