Originally posted at TED.com
Edward Snowden made a surprise appearance at TED2014 on 18 March 2014, speaking in Vancouver by means of a mobile video unit which he could control from a remote location. Snowden’s TED talk took the form of a conversation with Chris Anderson and Tim Berners-Lee, who had called for the formulation of an online bill of rights less than a week earlier.
A transcript follows after the video below.
Chris Anderson: Ed is in a remote location somewhere in Russia controlling this bot from his laptop, so he can see what the bot can see. Ed, welcome to the TED stage. What can you see, as a matter of fact?
Edward Snowden: Ha, I can see everyone. This is amazing.
Ed, some questions for you. You’ve been called many things in the last few months. You’ve been called a whistleblower, a traitor, a hero. What words would you describe yourself with?
You know, everybody who is involved with this debate has been struggling over me and my personality and how to describe me. But when I think about it, this isn’t the question that we should be struggling with. Who I am really doesn’t matter at all. If I’m the worst person in the world, you can hate me and move on. What really matters here are the issues. What really matters here is the kind of government we want, the kind of Internet we want, the kind of relationship between people and societies. And that’s what I’m hoping the debate will move towards, and we’ve seen that increasing over time. If I had to describe myself, I wouldn’t use words like “hero.” I wouldn’t use “patriot,” and I wouldn’t use “traitor.” I’d say I’m an American and I’m a citizen, just like everyone else.
So just to give some context for those who don’t know the whole story — this time a year ago, you were stationed in Hawaii working as a consultant to the NSA. As a sysadmin, you had access to their systems, and you began revealing certain classified documents to some handpicked journalists leading the way to June’s revelations. Now, what propelled you to do this?
You know, when I was sitting in Hawaii, and the years before, when I was working in the intelligence community, I saw a lot of things that had disturbed me. We do a lot of good things in the intelligence community, things that need to be done, and things that help everyone. But there are also things that go too far. There are things that shouldn’t be done, and decisions that were being made in secret without the public’s awareness, without the public’s consent, and without even our representatives in government having knowledge of these programs.
When I really came to struggle with these issues, I thought to myself, how can I do this in the most responsible way, that maximizes the public benefit while minimizing the risks? And out of all the solutions that I could come up with, out of going to Congress, when there were no laws, there were no legal protections for a private employee, a contractor in intelligence like myself, there was a risk that I would be buried along with the information and the public would never find out.
But the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees us a free press for a reason, and that’s to enable an adversarial press, to challenge the government, but also to work together with the government, to have a dialogue and debate about how we can inform the public about matters of vital importance without putting our national security at risk. And by working with journalists, by giving all of my information back to the American people, rather than trusting myself to make the decisions about publication, we’ve had a robust debate with a deep investment by the government that I think has resulted in a benefit for everyone. And the risks that have been threatened, the risks that have been played up by the government have never materialized. We’ve never seen any evidence of even a single instance of specific harm, and because of that, I’m comfortable with the decisions that I made.
So let me show the audience a couple of examples of what you revealed. If we could have a slide up, and Ed, I don’t know whether you can see, the slides are here. This is a slide of the PRISM program, and maybe you could tell the audience what that was that was revealed.
The best way to understand PRISM, because there’s been a little bit of controversy, is to first talk about what PRISM isn’t. Much of the debate in the U.S. has been about metadata. They’ve said it’s just metadata, it’s just metadata, and they’re talking about a specific legal authority called Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That allows sort of a warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance of the entire country’s phone records, things like that — who you’re talking to, when you’re talking to them, where you traveled. These are all metadata events.
PRISM is about content. It’s a program through which the government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America to do its dirty work for the NSA. And even though some of these companies did resist, even though some of them — I believe Yahoo was one of them — challenged them in court, they all lost, because it was never tried by an open court. They were only tried by a secret court.
And something that we’ve seen, something about the PRISM program that’s very concerning to me is, there’s been a talking point in the U.S. government where they’ve said 15 federal judges have reviewed these programs and found them to be lawful, but what they don’t tell you is those are secret judges in a secret court based on secret interpretations of law that’s considered 34,000 warrant requests over 33 years, and in 33 years only rejected 11 government requests. These aren’t the people that we want deciding what the role of corporate America in a free and open Internet should be.
Now, this slide that we’re showing here shows the dates in which different technology companies, Internet companies, are alleged to have joined the program, and where data collection began from them. Now, they have denied collaborating with the NSA. How was that data collected by the NSA?
Right. So the NSA’s own slides refer to it as direct access. What that means to an actual NSA analyst, someone like me who was working as an intelligence analyst targeting, Chinese cyber-hackers, things like that, in Hawaii, is the provenance of that data is directly from their servers. It doesn’t mean that there’s a group of company representatives sitting in a smoky room with the NSA palling around and making back-room deals about how they’re going to give this stuff away. Now each company handles it different ways. Some are responsible. Some are somewhat less responsible.
But the bottom line is, when we talk about how this information is given, it’s coming from the companies themselves. It’s not stolen from the lines. But there’s an important thing to remember here: even though companies pushed back, even though companies demanded, hey, let’s do this through a warrant process, let’s do this where we actually have some sort of legal review, some sort of basis for handing over these users’ data, we saw stories in the Washington Post last year that weren’t as well reported as the PRISM story that said the NSA broke in to the data center communications between Google to itself and Yahoo to itself.
So even these companies that are cooperating in at least a compelled but hopefully lawful manner with the NSA, the NSA isn’t satisfied with that, and because of that, we need our companies to work very hard to guarantee that they’re going to represent the interests of the user, and also advocate for the rights of the users. And I think over the last year, we’ve seen the companies that are named on the PRISM slides take great strides to do that, and I encourage them to continue.
What more should they do?
The biggest thing that an Internet company in America can do today, right now, without consulting with lawyers, to protect the rights of users worldwide, is to enable SSL web encryption on every page you visit. The reason this matters is today, if you go to look at a copy of “1984” on Amazon.com, the NSA can see a record of that, the Russian intelligence service can see a record of that, the Chinese service can see a record of that, the French service, the German service, the services of Andorra. They can all see it because it’s unencrypted. The world’s library is Amazon.com, but not only do they not support encryption by default, you cannot choose to use encryption when browsing through books. This is something that we need to change, not just for Amazon, I don’t mean to single them out, but they’re a great example. All companies need to move to an encrypted browsing habit by default for all users who haven’t taken any action or picked any special methods on their own. That’ll increase the privacy and the rights that people enjoy worldwide.
Ed, come with me to this part of the stage. I want to show you the next slide here. (Applause) This is a program called Boundless Informant. What is that?
So, I’ve got to give credit to the NSA for using appropriate names on this. This is one of my favorite NSA cryptonyms. Boundless Informant is a program that the NSA hid from Congress. The NSA was previously asked by Congress, was there any ability that they had to even give a rough ballpark estimate of the amount of American communications that were being intercepted. They said no. They said, we don’t track those stats, and we can’t track those stats. We can’t tell you how many communications we’re intercepting around the world, because to tell you that would be to invade your privacy. Now, I really appreciate that sentiment from them, but the reality, when you look at this slide is, not only do they have the capability, the capability already exists. It’s already in place. The NSA has its own internal data format that tracks both ends of a communication, and if it says, this communication came from America, they can tell Congress how many of those communications they have today, right now. And what Boundless Informant tells us is more communications are being intercepted in America about Americans than there are in Russia about Russians. I’m not sure that’s what an intelligence agency should be aiming for.
Ed, there was a story broken in the Washington Post, again from your data. The headline says, “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year.” Tell us about that.
We also heard in Congressional testimony last year, it was an amazing thing for someone like me who came from the NSA and who’s seen the actual internal documents, knows what’s in them, to see officials testifying under oath that there had been no abuses, that there had been no violations of the NSA’s rules, when we knew this story was coming. But what’s especially interesting about this, about the fact that the NSA has violated their own rules, their own laws thousands of times in a single year, including one event by itself, one event out of those 2,776, that affected more than 3,000 people. In another event, they intercepted all the calls in Washington, D.C., by accident. What’s amazing about this, this report, that didn’t get that much attention, is the fact that not only were there 2,776 abuses, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, had not seen this report until the Washington Post contacted her asking for comment on the report. And she then requested a copy from the NSA and received it, but had never seen this before that. What does that say about the state of oversight in American intelligence when the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has no idea that the rules are being broken thousands of times every year?
Ed, one response to this whole debate is this: Why should we care about all this surveillance, honestly? I mean, look, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about. What’s wrong with that point of view?
Well, so the first thing is, you’re giving up your rights. You’re saying hey, you know, I don’t think I’m going to need them, so I’m just going to trust that, you know, let’s get rid of them, it doesn’t really matter, these guys are going to do the right thing. Your rights matter because you never know when you’re going to need them. Beyond that, it’s a part of our cultural identity, not just in America, but in Western societies and in democratic societies around the world. People should be able to pick up the phone and to call their family, people should be able to send a text message to their loved ones, people should be able to buy a book online, they should be able to travel by train, they should be able to buy an airline ticket without wondering about how these events are going to look to an agent of the government, possibly not even your government years in the future, how they’re going to be misinterpreted and what they’re going to think your intentions were. We have a right to privacy. We require warrants to be based on probable cause or some kind of individualized suspicion because we recognize that trusting anybody, any government authority, with the entirety of human communications in secret and without oversight is simply too great a temptation to be ignored.
Some people are furious at what you’ve done. I heard a quote recently from Dick Cheney who said that Julian Assange was a flea bite, Edward Snowden is the lion that bit the head off the dog. He thinks you’ve committed one of the worst acts of betrayal in American history. What would you say to people who think that?
Dick Cheney’s really something else. I think it’s amazing, because at the time Julian Assange was doing some of his greatest work, Dick Cheney was saying he was going to end governments worldwide, the skies were going to ignite and the seas were going to boil off, and now he’s saying it’s a flea bite. So we should be suspicious about the same sort of overblown claims of damage to national security from these kind of officials.
But let’s assume that these people really believe this. I would argue that they have kind of a narrow conception of national security. The prerogatives of people like Dick Cheney do not keep the nation safe. The public interest is not always the same as the national interest. Going to war with people who are not our enemy in places that are not a threat doesn’t make us safe, and that applies whether it’s in Iraq or on the Internet.
The Internet is not the enemy. Our economy is not the enemy. American businesses, Chinese businesses, and any other company out there is a part of our society. It’s a part of our interconnected world. There are ties of fraternity that bond us together, and if we destroy these bonds by undermining the standards, the security, the manner of behavior, that nations and citizens all around the world expect us to abide by.
But it’s alleged that you’ve stolen 1.7 million documents. It seems only a few hundred of them have been shared with journalists so far. Are there more revelations to come?
There are absolutely more revelations to come. I don’t think there’s any question that some of the most important reporting to be done is yet to come.
Come here, because I want to ask you about this particular revelation. Come and take a look at this. I mean, this is a story which I think for a lot of the techies in this room is the single most shocking thing that they have heard in the last few months. It’s about a program called “Bullrun.” Can you explain what that is?
So Bullrun, and this is again where we’ve got to thank the NSA for their candor, this is a program named after a Civil War battle. The British counterpart is called Edgehill, which is a U.K. civil war battle. And the reason that I believe they’re named this way is because they target our own infrastructure. They’re programs through which the NSA intentionally misleads corporate partners. They tell corporate partners that these are safe standards. They say hey, we need to work with you to secure your systems, but in reality, they’re giving bad advice to these companies that makes them degrade the security of their services. They’re building in backdoors that not only the NSA can exploit, but anyone else who has time and money to research and find it can then use to let themselves in to the world’s communications. And this is really dangerous, because if we lose a single standard, if we lose the trust of something like SSL, which was specifically targeted by the Bullrun program, we will live a less safe world overall. We won’t be able to access our banks and we won’t be able to access commerce without worrying about people monitoring those communications or subverting them for their own ends.
And do those same decisions also potentially open America up to cyberattacks from other sources?
Absolutely. One of the problems, one of the dangerous legacies that we’ve seen in the post-9/11 era, is that the NSA has traditionally worn two hats. They’ve been in charge of offensive operations, that is hacking, but they’ve also been in charge of defensive operations, and traditionally they’ve always prioritized defense over offense based on the principle that American secrets are simply worth more. If we hack a Chinese business and steal their secrets, if we hack a government office in Berlin and steal their secrets, that has less value to the American people than making sure that the Chinese can’t get access to our secrets. So by reducing the security of our communications, they’re not only putting the world at risk, they’re putting America at risk in a fundamental way, because intellectual property is the basis, the foundation of our economy, and if we put that at risk through weak security, we’re going to be paying for it for years.
But they’ve made a calculation that it was worth doing this as part of America’s defense against terrorism. Surely that makes it a price worth paying.
Well, when you look at the results of these programs in stopping terrorism, you will see that that’s unfounded, and you don’t have to take my word for it, because we’ve had the first open court, the first federal court that’s reviewed this, outside the secrecy arrangement, called these programs Orwellian and likely unconstitutional. Congress, who has access to be briefed on these things, and now has the desire to be, has produced bills to reform it, and two independent White House panels who reviewed all of the classified evidence said these programs have never stopped a single terrorist attack that was imminent in the United States. So is it really terrorism that we’re stopping? Do these programs have any value at all? I say no, and all three branches of the American government say no as well.
I mean, do you think there’s a deeper motivation for them than the war against terrorism?
I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you, say again?
Sorry. Do you think there’s a deeper motivation for them other than the war against terrorism?
Yeah. The bottom line is that terrorism has always been what we in the intelligence world would call a cover for action. Terrorism is something that provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize authorizing powers and programs that they wouldn’t give otherwise. The Bullrun and Edgehill-type programs, the NSA asked for these authorities back in the 1990s. They asked the FBI to go to Congress and make the case. The FBI went to Congress and did make the case. But Congress and the American people said no. They said, it’s not worth the risk to our economy. They said it’s worth too much damage to our society to justify the gains. But what we saw is, in the post-9/11 era, they used secrecy and they used the justification of terrorism to start these programs in secret without asking Congress, without asking the American people, and it’s that kind of government behind closed doors that we need to guard ourselves against, because it makes us less safe, and it offers no value.
Okay, come with me here for a sec, because I’ve got a more personal question for you. Speaking of terror, most people would find the situation you’re in right now in Russia pretty terrifying. You obviously heard what happened, what the treatment that Bradley Manning got, Chelsea Manning as now is, and there was a story in Buzzfeed saying that there are people in the intelligence community who want you dead. How are you coping with this? How are you coping with the fear?
It’s no mystery that there are governments out there that want to see me dead. I’ve made clear again and again and again that I go to sleep every morning thinking about what I can do for the American people. I don’t want to harm my government. I want to help my government, but the fact that they are willing to completely ignore due process, they’re willing to declare guilt without ever seeing a trial, these are things that we need to work against as a society, and say hey, this is not appropriate. We shouldn’t be threatening dissidents. We shouldn’t be criminalizing journalism. And whatever part I can do to see that end, I’m happy to do despite the risks.
So I’d actually like to get some feedback from the audience here, because I know there’s widely differing reactions to Edward Snowden. Suppose you had the following two choices, right? You could view what he did as fundamentally a reckless act that has endangered America or you could view it as fundamentally a heroic act that will work towards America and the world’s long-term good? Those are the two choices I’ll give you. I’m curious to see who’s willing to vote with the first of those, that this was a reckless act? There are some hands going up. Some hands going up. It’s hard to put your hand up when the man is standing right here, but I see them.
I can see you. (Laughter)
And who goes with the second choice, the fundamentally heroic act?
And I think it’s true to say that there are a lot of people who didn’t show a hand and I think are still thinking this through, because it seems to me that the debate around you doesn’t split along traditional political lines. It’s not left or right, it’s not really about pro-government, libertarian, or not just that. Part of it is almost a generational issue. You’re part of a generation that grew up with the Internet, and it seems as if you become offended at almost a visceral level when you see something done that you think will harm the Internet. Is there some truth to that?
It is. I think it’s very true. This is not a left or right issue. Our basic freedoms, and when I say our, I don’t just mean Americans, I mean people around the world, it’s not a partisan issue. These are things that all people believe, and it’s up to all of us to protect them, and to people who have seen and enjoyed a free and open Internet, it’s up to us to preserve that liberty for the next generation to enjoy, and if we don’t change things, if we don’t stand up to make the changes we need to do to keep the Internet safe, not just for us but for everyone, we’re going to lose that, and that would be a tremendous loss, not just for us, but for the world.
Well, I have heard similar language recently from the founder of the world wide web, who I actually think is with us, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Tim, actually, would you like to come up and say, do we have a microphone for Tim?
Tim, good to see you. Come up there. Which camp are you in, by the way, traitor, hero? I have a theory on this, but —
27:17 Tim Berners-Lee: I’ve given much longer answers to that question, but hero, if I have to make the choice between the two.
And Ed, I think you’ve read the proposal that Sir Tim has talked about about a new Magna Carta to take back the Internet. Is that something that makes sense?
ES: Absolutely. I mean, my generation, I grew up not just thinking about the Internet, but I grew up in the Internet, and although I never expected to have the chance to defend it in such a direct and practical manner and to embody it in this unusual, almost avatar manner, I think there’s something poetic about the fact that one of the sons of the Internet has actually become close to the Internet as a result of their political expression. And I believe that a Magna Carta for the Internet is exactly what we need. We need to encode our values not just in writing but in the structure of the Internet, and it’s something that I hope, I invite everyone in the audience, not just here in Vancouver but around the world, to join and participate in.
Do you have a question for Ed?
TBL: Well, two questions, a general question —
Ed, can you still hear us?
ES: Yes, I can hear you.
Oh, he’s back.
TBL: The wiretap on your line got a little interfered with for a moment. (Laughter)
ES: It’s a little bit of an NSA problem.
TBL: So, from the 25 years, stepping back and thinking, what would you think would be the best that we could achieve from all the discussions that we have about the web we want?
ES: When we think about in terms of how far we can go, I think that’s a question that’s really only limited by what we’re willing to put into it. I think the Internet that we’ve enjoyed in the past has been exactly what we as not just a nation but as a people around the world need, and by cooperating, by engaging not just the technical parts of society, but as you said, the users, the people around the world who contribute through the Internet, through social media, who just check the weather, who rely on it every day as a part of their life, to champion that. We’ll get not just the Internet we’ve had, but a better Internet, a better now, something that we can use to build a future that’ll be better not just than what we hoped for but anything that we could have imagined.
It’s 30 years ago that TED was founded, 1984. A lot of the conversation since then has been along the lines that actually George Orwell got it wrong. It’s not Big Brother watching us. We, through the power of the web, and transparency, are now watching Big Brother. Your revelations kind of drove a stake through the heart of that rather optimistic view, but you still believe there’s a way of doing something about that. And you do too.
ES: Right, so there is an argument to be made that the powers of Big Brother have increased enormously. There was a recent legal article at Yale that established something called the Bankston-Soltani Principle, which is that our expectation of privacy is violated when the capabilities of government surveillance have become cheaper by an order of magnitude, and each time that occurs, we need to revisit and rebalance our privacy rights. Now, that hasn’t happened since the government’s surveillance powers have increased by several orders of magnitude, and that’s why we’re in the problem that we’re in today, but there is still hope, because the power of individuals have also been increased by technology. I am living proof that an individual can go head to head against the most powerful adversaries and the most powerful intelligence agencies around the world and win, and I think that’s something that we need to take hope from, and we need to build on to make it accessible not just to technical experts but to ordinary citizens around the world. Journalism is not a crime, communication is not a crime, and we should not be monitored in our everyday activities.
I’m not quite sure how you shake the hand of a bot, but I imagine it’s, this is the hand right here.
TBL: That’ll come very soon.
ES: Nice to meet you, and I hope my beam looks as nice as my view of you guys does.
Thank you, Tim.
I mean, the New York Times recently called for an amnesty for you. Would you welcome the chance to come back to America?
Absolutely. There’s really no question, the principles that have been the foundation of this project have been the public interest and the principles that underly the journalistic establishment in the United States and around the world, and I think if the press is now saying, we support this, this is something that needed to happen, that’s a powerful argument, but it’s not the final argument, and I think that’s something that public should decide. But at the same time, the government has hinted that they want some kind of deal, that they want me to compromise the journalists with which I’ve been working, to come back, and I want to make it very clear that I did not do this to be safe. I did this to do what was right, and I’m not going to stop my work in the public interest just to benefit myself.
In the meantime, courtesy of the Internet and this technology, you’re here, back in North America, not quite the U.S., Canada, in this form. I’m curious, how does that feel?
Canada is different than what I expected. It’s a lot warmer.
At TED, the mission is “ideas worth spreading.” If you could encapsulate it in a single idea, what is your idea worth spreading right now at this moment?
I would say the last year has been a reminder that democracy may die behind closed doors, but we as individuals are born behind those same closed doors, and we don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t have to give up our liberty to have security. And I think by working together we can have both open government and private lives, and I look forward to working with everyone around the world to see that happen.
Thank you very much.
Ed, thank you.