A gathering of journalists, hackers and whistleblowers in Berlin this weekend heard former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, issue a call for citizens to find ways to take direct control over the information technologies we use everyday.
The Logan Symposium, organized by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) based in Goldsmiths University, London, also heard from Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange, and NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and William Binney.
The two-day conference was supported by a wide range of press freedom organisations, independent journalism outfits, and mainstream media — including the German newsmagazine Der Speigel.
I participated in the symposium as a speaker, where I and my other panelists including investigative journalist Jacob Appelbaum — who has worked with both Assange and Snowden, and independently broke the story of NSA spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel — described our experiences of frontline reporting.
Also on my panel was Eveline Lubbers, who has pioneered investigations exposing UK police operations to infiltrate activist groups; Martin Welz, editor of Noseweek, South Africa’s only investigative journalism magazine; Natalia Viana, co-director of Brazil’s leading nonprofit investigative journalism outlet, Agencia Publica; and Anas Aremeyaw, Africa’s foremost undercover journalist.
During his exclusive video address on Saturday evening, Snowden cautioned against viewing new developments in encryption as the only way of addressing mass surveillance, instead emphasising the urgency of dramatic global political and legal reform.
The whistleblower also criticised President Barack Obama’s stance on the dispute between Apple and the FBI over access to the IPhone used in the San Bernardino shootings.
“There’s been a lot about how we can address challenges through technical means,” Edward Snowden told the audience in Berlin via live video link.
“We need to think about how we got here. We talk about legal reform, but these weren’t authorised in the first place… Reforming things within the system is the ideal, within the system. It’s the way it should work, the way our societies are designed to function.
What happens when the systems fail to function?
We have this natural inclination to think that these are departures from the natural order of things, and everything will be better again, and we can rely once more on the system.
But, it turns out, that abuse is the byproduct of power… Whenever we have increasingly small groups with power, we have abuses of power. The mechanism today is technology…
There’s an intersection of technology and access to information in society. The internet is the shorthand for it… It increasingly effects all of us, but we have less and less control over it.”
On Friday, the founding publisher of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, expressed similar concerns in his live video address from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where a UN panel recently concluded he is effectively being arbitrarily detained. That conclusion was reached, Assange said, “despite improper pressure from the US and UK governments on the UN.”
Assange warned of the increasing intersection between Google, now the world’s largest media company, and the US military industrial complex, in particular highlighting Google’s escalating investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, largely for ‘national security’ applications by the US military and intelligence community.
“Google is integrating AI systems with the national security system,” said Assange. “This is a threat to mankind. We must stop feeding Google.”
He urged the public to explore alternative online services to mitigate Google’s ability to sweep up vast quantities of personal data into AI systems co-opted by the Pentagon.
Threat to democracy
Both Assange and Snowden argued that the rapid centralisation of control of information communication technologies within a private corporate sector increasingly enmeshed with the security-state, represents a fundamental threat to functioning democracies, particularly a free press.
“We have to accept that the only way to protect the rights of one, is to protect the rights of all,” said Snowden. “Increasingly this is seen as a threat to government because it represents a domain in which they will no longer be able to intervene.”
Describing President Obama’s stance on the Apple-FBI dispute as a “false dichotomy between privacy and security,” he stated that “you need both”, and can’t have one without the other.
Snowden added that the use of metadata to target people as threats to national security sets a dangerous precedent, with wide scope for miscarriages of justice against everyday citizens. A person who simply communicated with a journalist breaking a story based on information from a government whistleblower, for instance, could end up being convicted as the source — even if they were not the source — based on the use of metadata linking them circumstantially to the journalist.
“Whether or not you were the source, if you simply communicated with the journalist, you could be convicted,” said Snowden.
In Britain, the Tory government is attempting to push through a particularly draconian piece of legislation, the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill), which would grant the state extraordinary powers to interfere with journalism. The bill, which if passed could set a precedent for other Western countries, is due to receive a second reading in parliament on Tuesday, 15th March.
According to the National Union of Journalists, the bill will grant the government powers to access journalists’ communications and hack their electronic equipment, including intercepting the content and metadata of their communications, without informing them.
Despite significant opposition from various parliamentary committees, including the Joint Committee on the Investigatory Powers Bill, subsequent government re-drafts have only worsened its provisions.
According to Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, the IP Bill:
“… is a threat to the ability of journalists to do their jobs, to guarantee their material and to protect their sources. Without that protection, we simply won’t have a functioning free press… A lack of safeguards for all journalists will have profound consequences for the public’s right to know in the UK.”
Metadata, of course, is already used in a wide range of contexts by the intelligence community to identify not just terrorism suspects, but also activists, human rights groups, and others critical of government policy.
Increasingly, signature drone strikes against unidentified groups of suspected terrorist targets in theatres like Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan are based solely on metadata gleaned through surveillance of mobile phones, social media profiles, and other electronic information repositories. This has led to countless civilian casualties.
Metadata from numerous electronic sources, including social media, is increasingly being seen by the Pentagon, as well as UK and EU security agencies, as a vast repository of easily attainable ‘open source’ intelligence to attempt to predict, and control, the behaviour of human populations.
As I reported in February, unclassified official documents from the US Office of Naval Research among other Pentagon research programmes throw light on the alarming ‘minority report’-style ambitions of US government officials in terms of wanting to precisely anticipate and predict future activism, protests, crime, terrorism, conflicts and state-failures. Yet independent experts note that such technologies are more likely to generate false positives and red-herrings, rather than forecasts of real predictive value.
Edward Snowden advocated the careful use and advancement of encryption technologies by journalists to help protect sources, but noted that technology alone is not the answer.
One new powerful technology, a complete operating system known as SubGraph OS which can be installed onto a PC or Mac to provide a full range of encrypted communication tools, was launched at the conference. SubGraph is the latest in several different but similar tools, such as Tails — an operating system that can be booted up on any computer through a USB drive — and Qubes, another system requiring installation on specifically tailored security hardened computers.
Designers of these projects at the conference warned, however, that while these tools are powerful, they do not offer guarantees against government surveillance, especially due to the possibility of as yet unknown built-in ‘backdoors’ in both mainstream software and hardware.
“They are truly great projects,” said Snowden, highlighting SubGraph OS in particular: “I plan to use this myself. But we have to recognise that these are inaccessible for the majority of users, for journalists, who aren’t specialists.”
The challenge for technologists is to develop friendlier and more accessible user-interfaces which can be learned by laypeople as you go. Snowden suggested exploring the ‘gamification’ of the learning curve for such tools to make the experience of getting to grips with them easier.
“We can provide people basic skills, understandings, by teaching them as they go — a gamification of the interface, that teaches people as they use it, in a way that’s fun, not burdensome, and enjoyable. This is something we need to work on a lot.”
Snowden also encouraged technologists to “compete directly with these billion dollar corporate interests” like Google, Facebook and Apple. There’s a chance, he said, that citizen-led entrepreneurship could be “more successful, creating products that are just as attractive, more easy to use, but aren’t as dangerous to the individual’s rights to be free and associate in a free and safe way.”
Edward Snowden also warned against assuming that attempting to counter state surveillance through encryption alone would be a panacea, advocating the need to fundamentally challenge the centralisation of power over information technologies in state-corporate hands.
“We’re reliant on for-profit groups corporations like Apple to defend our rights. We have to rely on the protocols and systems that are underlying our communications.
We need to get more radical as technologists and journalists…
There have been extraordinary imbalances of power throughout history. I’m not a Communist, but there were people who argued we need to seize the means of production. We’re rapidly approaching the point where we need to seize the means of our communication.”
“We are seeing entirely too much control of institutions we’re supposed to be able to trust, but we cannot trust,” he said. “At the same time, we’re seeing corporations get access to our private lives, in ways we didn’t anticipate and we’re not aware of how its being used.”
Privacy or security?
Snowden dismissed the idea that privacy or liberty stood somehow counterposed to genuine security.
“Politicians are consumed by the ease of fear in messaging. Saying ‘this will save lives’ is persuasive to the voter. People are inclined to believe them…Let’s look at the actual facts, at 9/11. We had a Congressional investigation — and they found that it wasn’t the case we weren’t collecting enough. The problem was our focus was so scattered, so many programmes collecting so much, we didn’t share it properly, and because of that, 3,000 people died. Politicians today are saying we need to collect more — but they’re making us all less safe, and putting lives at risk.”
The Boston marathon bombings, he said, provided a clear example of the bankruptcy of the surveillance-for-security mantra — the perpetrators, despite operating in the context of “the largest dragnet programme in the history of my country” had remained undetected.
“At the end of the day, we have to make a decision. Do we want to be a controlled society? Or do we want to live in a free one? Because we can’t have both.”
In a panel on Friday, Thomas Drake — the former senior NSA executive who inspired Snowden to blow the whistle by exposing the flaws of the agency’s billion dollar Trailblazer mass surveillance project — recalled how his NSA bosses cynically saw the 9/11 intelligence failure as an opportunity to increase the agency’s budget dramatically.
“I couldn’t believe it when my supervisor described 9/11 as ‘a gift to the NSA.’”
The idea that mass surveillance has any prospect of genuinely keeping us safe is thus deeply questionable. The fundamental problem with the insistence on eliminating privacy in the name of security is its totalitarian impact across our entire societies.
“We need to think about what rights are for? Where do they come from? What are their values? What is privacy for, really?” Snowden told the audience at the CIJ gathering.
“Privacy is the right from which all others are derived. Without privacy there is only society, only the collective, which makes them all be and think alike. You can’t have anything yourself, you can’t have your own opinions, unless you have a space that belongs only to you.
Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say…”
If mass surveillance was simply about thwarting terrorism, its targets would not consistently be political dissidents, Snowden argued, pointing to the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King Jr — described by Snowden as the “greatest civil rights leader my country has ever seen.”
Two days after that speech, Snowden said, the FBI assessed King to be “the greatest threat to national security” at the time.
Little has changed since then.
The former intelligence contractor pointed out that Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, has unlawfully spied on human rights groups like Amnesty International, journalists, media figures and other NGOs, “using powers passed publicly to thwart terrorists.”
Citing the top secret documents he had leaked, he noted that internal justification for keeping such programmes classified made no reference to national security issues. Instead, the documents said that “publicising them would lead to a ‘damaging public debate’ because we [the public] would protest these activities.”
The implication is that the national security state sees the very fundamentals of vibrant democracies — a truly free press, vigorous public debate, oversight over highly classified intelligence policies — as the enemy.
The dismissal of the importance of rights of privacy, Snowden said, is a function of unequal power. The whistleblower urged his listeners to consider how the demand to eliminate privacy comes from powerful people “in a position of privilege… If you’re an old white guy at the top of the pyramid, society is ordered to protect your interests. You designed the system to protect your interests.”
This inequality in power, Snowden said, means that “it’s the minorities who are most at risk” from the impact of mass surveillance.
“It’s not enough to think about these things, it’s not enough to believe in something,” concluded Snowden to resounding applause. “You have to actually stand for something, you have to actually say something, you have to actually risk something, if you want things to get better.”
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is a weekly columnist for Middle East Eye.
He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was twice selected in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 most globally influential Londoners, in 2014 and 2015.
Nafeez has also written and reported for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist, The Ecologist, Alternet, Counterpunch, Truthout, among others.
He is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Faculty of Science and Technology at Anglia Ruskin University, where he is researching the link between global systemic crises and civil unrest for Springer Energy Briefs.
Nafeez is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel ZERO POINT, among other books. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.