Two years since he first released documents revealing the extent of government spy networks, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden talked to us about how he and the political landscape have changed.
What do you think has changed over the last two years?
People are much more sceptical of surveillance programs than they were before I came forward. After looking through the information that has been revealed, people have broadly confirmed that our governments have been breaking the law. Even the courts, which have every incentive to say: ‘nothing to see here, move along’. To have been a part of that, and to now have the opportunity to restore, not just a measure of lawfulness to governments, but a measure of liberty to our digital lives, is something that gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
What have people in the intelligence community said?
There are a lot of political incentives for people involved in intelligence to say: ‘the disclosures are extraordinarily damaging’. But in private a lot of them are very concerned about whether or not mass surveillance is right, and whether or not we should be doing it at all.
Officials also think that the public awareness of mass surveillance is actually beneficial to them. Because, if you reveal to the world that you’ve got the most incredible spy machine on the planet, every other spy wants to talk to you and trade baseball cards with you. I’ve seen a lot of that.
I have one regret: I should have come forward sooner. Had I done so, I think we would have a much greater degree of liberty in our online lives. Because the biggest challenge we face in reforming these surveillance programs is that, once the money has been spent, and once the practices have been institutionalized in secret, without the public knowing, it’s very difficult to change them.
The government doesn’t want to just uproot these systems and throw them away. And spy chiefs have gotten used to the ability to go, ‘you know, we don’t even need to order surveillance on this person – we already have all of their private records because we spy on everybody. So let’s just look through the last 30 years of their phone calls, location records and border crossings’. It’s very difficult to convince them to give that up.
What would you say to people who think ‘I’ve got nothing to hide, so mass surveillance doesn’t matter’?
It’s not about having nothing to hide, it’s about being you. It’s about being friends with who you want to be friends with, without worrying about what it looks like on paper or inside some private record in some dark government vault.
It’s about realising there’s a reason we close the bathroom door. There’s a reason we don’t want the police to have a video camera where they can watch us while we’re sitting in the bubble bath. There’s a reason everybody gets so concerned about the Samsung TV that’s recording what you say in your living room, and then sending it to third parties. This is what you’re going to get. You’re not going to watch TV any more. TV is going to watch you.
What do you think will happen now?
This is going to be one of the most impactful human rights issues of the next 30 years. Because what we’re seeing now is only the beginning. Everybody working on this stuff from the engineering side is thinking: How can we push this further? How do we collect more? Technology will get cheaper, connection easier and networks more pervasive, so that you’ll never be outside of a means of transmitting data. If we don’t get a handle on these things, and set real international standards about the kind of behaviour that is appropriate in a free and liberal society, what we’re going to find is that free and liberal societies will no longer exist.
And how have you been?
I have a lot less leisure time. It’s kinda funny. People probably think going underground is a slightly devil-may-care thing to do. But I actually work much more now than I ever did before. And I’m really fulfilled by that. I work seven days a week, generally. Because there’s so much to be done.
The hardest part of the last two years has been being away from my family and my home. I made a lot of sacrifices. I live more simply now, but ultimately it’s been worth it. And people have been extremely supportive – even people from the intelligence community.
Any last words?
Progress is the product of dissent. If nobody is willing to change things, or try something different, if nobody is willing to risk going outside the boundaries of what people normally do, we’ll have very static and I think very limited societies.
Join the fight back
The tide is turning against mass surveillance but our privacy and freedom are still at stake. We need to keep telling governments that our private lives are none of their business. Sign the petition and call on the USA and UK – as well as their close allies Australia, Canada and New Zealand – to ban mass surveillance today.