Skype conference with Edward Snowden: “The threats to private data in the XXI century are more than abstract for most”

Posted: Augustinas Šemelis Date: 2014-11-13 08:40

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© Augustinas Šemelis / PlanetNews.info

In “Festival des Libertés“, which is ongoing in Brussels, Edward Snowden himself appeared virtually. “And I apologize, if you experience any difficulties entering the US after this” the first thing this famed “warrior for privacy” or “betrayer of the West” (if you prefer) said to one of the organizers of this discussion.

“After the events of 9/11, systems were developed in the United States to monitor entire communities. High-ranking officers willingly broke laws, arguing that they simply lack time to ask for public opinion. It didn’t begin with bad intentions, however, as years passed, this system dug deeper.” Snowden started, after receiving thundering applause in the packed theatre hall. During the last few years, most have already heard this introduction. “The public has an obligation, not a right to know everything”.

“Snowden has created a paradigm shift in the understanding of internet security.” The moderator demonstrates his admiration, as he remembers when this former NSA employee handed over the agency’s top secret documents detailing its massive worldwide private data collection to the British newspaper “The Guardian”. The employee then escaped to Hong Kong, tried to reach Latin America with a flight from Moscow, but is currently stuck in Russia, where recently has received a permission to remain in the country for three years.

Possibly the biggest controversy in Snowden’s autobiography is the acceptance of refuge from an authoritarian regime, which particularly doesn’t concern itself with the rights and privacy of its citizens. However, he denies any connections with the Kremlin and claims that he had no choice, but to stay in Russia and is constantly searching for asylum in other countries.

So. Julian Assange? That’s so 2012. Now the haute culture, high culture whistleblower (There really isn’t a direct Lithuanian translation. The closest you would get, is describing a player of some institution, who believed that a certain episode deserved a red card, however it wasn’t noticed by the public or the arbiter, so he pulls out his own whistle, announces about the red card, but has to hide, because the institution hates him now.) is Edward Snowden.

At the end of the evening there will be much applause and no hostilities, even small ones. Western Europe is, most likely, the only region in the world, where this whistleblower might enjoy his ”hero” status, especially with left-leaning youth. Here, people that consider him to be a traitor are in the minority. More often than not, he is seen here as someone who is willing to help the West with its transparency problems and become an example to developing regions of the world.

A client in Moscow, a lawyer in Brussels  

No, there was no work or recreational room on the theatre scene, behind Snowden, during the discussion – the ex NSA employee uses “Skype” to communicate more than a Lithuanian, who has immigrated to London from Mazeikiai, doesn’t know much about the locals and spends a lot of time talking to his family and friends back home.

During the discussion he was in his own Skype studio – black backdrop, professional lighting, tidy outfit. An American, living in a Russian asylum, survives with what is left from his NSA salary – according to unofficial documents, his pay check reached almost 200 000 USD per year.  The accusations that he is on a Kremlin’s payroll are always rebutted by Snowden and his team of lawyers

Speaking of lawyer teams, one of its main members – Ben Wizner attended the event. Not by “Skype”, but live at Brussels. As he claimed on the stage: “I communicate with Edward so much that sometimes, I know exactly what he is thinking, so I believe that I am fully eligible to speak for him”. Edward smiled on-screen.

Not Orvell’s “Big Brother”, but Kafka’s “The Trial”

“Independent studies showed, that these mass surveillance systems had never stopped a real act of terrorism.” Ben Wizner continued.

The moderator asked something like this: So why are these programs necessary? I mean, no one would invest billions of dollars just for the data of the internet activity of boring average people and the ability to play Orvell’s “Big Brother”?

According to Ben Wizner, these spy programs might be used as a powerful and precise forensic weapon. “Data on the time and location of a person is collected. It can be used as a perfect prosecution system.”

“Some might consider this a good thing.” The lawyer continued. “However, none of them would be the founders of the United States Constitution. The amendments in the Constitution were designed to make the process of prosecution as complex as possible”.

“Society is waiting for the type of security that was implemented in Eastern Germany in the 60’s. When the KGB would go into your home and hide listening devices. No, surveillance these days has become abstract and massive, everyone is a potential suspect, and all presumptions of innocence are gone.” Wizner claims.

“This story seems to remind us of Orvell’s “Big Brother”, however it’s more reminiscent of Kafka’s “The Trial”, when you are tracked for no good reason.” The moderator notes.

Snowden: “Institutions, to ensure privacy, are necessary”

As the participants of the even summarize, in the past few years, many specific cases went to light, and not just in the US. The British NSA equivalent – GCHQ tried to infect the computers of Belgium’s telecom “Belgacom” workers with secret viral spy software; Western security institutions are selling tracking devices to  the former Gaddafi Libyan regime, where they are used to persecute dissidents – these are only a few of the stories that were leaked to the media. In other words, we have to change something, but even if we knew exactly what to do, there would still be a large gap between knowing and the ability to do something.

According to Snowden, the problem is a bit complicated. “There are many parliaments that would like to react, but they are constantly misinformed, told that no spying or surveillance exists. We should educate parliamentarians; inform them that mass collection of private documents is the same as spying”. As mentioned, many horror stories, when KGB agents barge into your homes, in the XX century, are still being found. In the XXI century, there is a threat to private data, as it is too abstract to the general populace.

“Institutions, to ensure privacy, are necessary.” Snowden says. “Starting from the non-governmental organizations and universities, certain foundations of a structure, that would defend private and business interests, should be built. It would be difficult as the victories on the “defending” side would be invisible.”

“To ensure document security, we should start with encryption. Without it – surveillance is easy.” According to Snowden, to start the process you need motivation. However, motivation will not exist when the public is misinformed about the massive collections of data and don’t realize the threat to their privacy.

Legal and illegal secrets of the state

The last argument in discussions about Snowden usually is this: “He revealed a state secret, thus compromised the security of the country. Therefore he is simply a traitor”. So the question about state secrets was asked this evening.

“Are there any legitimate state secrets? There are”, – Snowden answers “We don’t have to know the names of every terrorist or criminal that is being tracked by the FBI”. Very well, but where do you draw the line?

“The line is drawn by cooperation: for example, independent media may consult with state institutions and non-governmental companies.” “However, currently the public is not as authorized to use these programs as the government. Furthermore, we don’t know who will, in 10 years time, be in the government and use these tools for their own gain.”

Snowden’s layer Ben Wizner adds. ”When talking about state secrets, it is not enough to say that it might harm national security. Let’s say, photos, where US soldiers are torturing prisoners in Iraq, were leaked. Of course it damaged US security – it created disturbances in Iraq, radicalized another part of society. However who would claim that the US public shouldn’t be aware of this?”

Pigus skrydis