8 Things We Learned from Edward Snowden’s Reddit AMA

February 23, 2015

6:00 pm

At last night’s 86th Academy Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris joked that former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden wasn’t in attendance because he “couldn’t be there for some treason.” Seconds after making the joke, it was all over social media, with people split between two camps: those denouncing NPH’s joke as ignorant and thereby unfunny – with many referencing that Snowden was never even accused – and those who simply accepted it as-is and laughed with the crowd. While journalist and Citizenfour collaborator Glenn Greenwald wholly opposed the comedian’s joke, we learned this afternoon from Snowden himself (via his Reddit AMA) that he found the joke funny.

And that was just one of many things we learned from Snowden’s AMA earlier today. Last night, Citizenfour, which spotlights Edwards Snowden and his release of NSA secrets and the wider spying activities of the government agency, won the Academy Award for best documentary. Following up on last night’s success, Snowden, Greenwald, and director Laura Poitras went on Reddit this afternoon to hold an AMA session. We followed along and found the best sets of questions and answers. Read everything we learned from Edward Snowden’s Reddit AMA:

1. He thinks people care deeply about privacy, but they think they have no influence in affecting change:

Snowden: Poll after poll is confirming that, contrary to what we tend to think, people not only care, they care a lot. The problem is we feel disempowered. We feel like we can’t do anything about it, so we may as well not try.

It’s going to be a long process, but that’s starting to change. The technical community (and a special shoutout to every underpaid and overworked student out there working on this — you are the noble Atlas lifting up the globe in our wildly inequitable current system) is in a lot of way left holding the bag on this one by virtue of the nature of the problems, but that’s not all bad. 2013, for a lot of engineers and researchers, was a kind of atomic moment for computer science. Much like physics post-Manhattan project, an entire field of research that was broadly apolitical realized that work intended to improve the human condition could also be subverted to degrade it.

Politicians and the powerful have indeed got a hell of a head start on us, but equality of awareness is a powerful equalizer. In almost every jurisdiction you see officials scrambling to grab for new surveillance powers now not because they think they’re necessary — even government reports say mass surveillance doesn’t work — but because they think it’s their last chance.

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I think they’re right. In twenty years’ time, the paradigm of digital communications will have changed entirely, and so too with the norms of mass surveillance.

2. He would would have come forward with the leaks sooner, if he had a second chance:

Snowden: I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.

Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it’s very important:

Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government’s own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.

Don’t let it happen in your country.

3. His recommendations for what we can do to highlight these issues in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election:

Snowden: Organizing is important. Activism is important.

At the same time, we should remember that governments don’t often reform themselves. One of the arguments in a book I read recently (Bruce Schneier, “Data and Goliath”), is that perfect enforcement of the law sounds like a good thing, but that may not always be the case. The end of crime sounds pretty compelling, right, so how can that be?

Well, when we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day. History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality. Slavery. The protection of persecuted Jews.

But even on less extremist topics, we can find similar examples. How about the prohibition of alcohol? Gay marriage? Marijuana?

Where would we be today if the government, enjoying powers of perfect surveillance and enforcement, had — entirely within the law — rounded up, imprisoned, and shamed all of these lawbreakers?

Ultimately, if people lose their willingness to recognize that there are times in our history when legality becomes distinct from morality, we aren’t just ceding control of our rights to government, but our agency in determing thour futures.

How does this relate to politics? Well, I suspect that governments today are more concerned with the loss of their ability to control and regulate the behavior of their citizens than they are with their citizens’ discontent.

How do we make that work for us? We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.

You can see the beginnings of this dynamic today in the statements of government officials complaining about the adoption of encryption by major technology providers. The idea here isn’t to fling ourselves into anarchy and do away with government, but to remind the government that there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed, and that as the progress of science increasingly empowers communities and individuals, there will be more and more areas of our lives where — if government insists on behaving poorly and with a callous disregard for the citizen — we can find ways to reduce or remove their powers on a new — and permanent — basis.

Our rights are not granted by governments. They are inherent to our nature. But it’s entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy.

We haven’t had to think about that much in the last few decades because quality of life has been increasing across almost all measures in a significant way, and that has led to a comfortable complacency. But here and there throughout history, we’ll occasionally come across these periods where governments think more about what they “can” do rather than what they “should” do, and what is lawful will become increasingly distinct from what is moral.

In such times, we’d do well to remember that at the end of the day, the law doesn’t defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.

4. That our elected Congressmen are basically terrible people:

Snowden:  One of the biggest problems in governance today is the difficulty faced by citizens looking to hold officials to account when they cross the line. We can develop new tools and traditions to protect our rights, and we can do our best to elect new and better representatives, but if we cannot enforce consequences on powerful officials for abusive behavior, we end up in a system where the incentives reward bad behavior post-election.

That’s how we end up with candidates who say one thing but, once in power, do something radically different. How do you fix that? Good question.

5. That he, too, finds NPH hilarious:

Snowden: Wow the questions really blew up on this one. Let me start digging in…

To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad. My perspective is if you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.

“If this be treason, then let us make the most of it.”

6. That there’s missing validation regarding Putin’s assertion that spying isn’t happening in Russia:

Snowden: To tag on to the Putin question: There’s not, and that’s part of the problem world-wide. We can’t just reform the laws in one country, wipe our hands, and call it a day. We have to ensure that our rights aren’t just being protected by letters on a sheet of paper somewhere, or those protections will evaporate the minute our communications get routed across a border. The only way to ensure the human rights of citizens around the world are being respected in the digital realm is to enforce them through systems and standards rather than policies and procedures.

7. Moscow is a huge city:

Snowden: Moscow is the biggest city in Europe. A lot of people forget that. Shy of Tokyo, it’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. I’d rather be home, but it’s a lot like any other major city.

8. He’s not a damn Russian spy:

Snowden: The answer is “of course not.” You’ll notice in all of these articles, the assertions ultimately come down to speculation and suspicion. None of them claim to have any actual proof, they’re just so damned sure I’m a russian spy that it must be true.

And I get that. I really do. I mean come on – I used to teach “cyber counterintelligence” (their term) at DIA.

But when you look at in aggregate, what sense does that make? If I were a russian spy, why go to Hong Kong? It’s would have been an unacceptable risk. And further – why give any information to journalists at all, for that matter, much less so much and of such importance? Any intelligence value it would have to the russians would be immediately compromised.

If I were a spy for the russians, why the hell was I trapped in any airport for a month? I would have gotten a parade and a medal instead.

The reality is I spent so long in that damn airport because I wouldn’t play ball and nobody knew what to do with me. I refused to cooperate with Russian intelligence in any way (see my testimony to EU Parliament on this one if you’re interested), and that hasn’t changed.

At this point, I think the reason I get away with it is because of my public profile. What can they really do to me? If I show up with broken fingers, everybody will know what happened.

Read the rest of Edward Snowden’s AMA here.

Lead image: Mike Mozart / JeepersMedia via Flickr

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.

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