How the Snowden leaks changed government surveillance
10 years ago, U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden stunned the world by revealing government officials were surveilling private citizens across the globe.
What has – and hasn’t – changed about government surveillance in the decade since the Snowden leaks?
Today, On Point: We talk with Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian newspaper. He helped bring the NSA story to light.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening. And goes, this is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: 10 years ago, Edward Snowden became a household name. The 29-year-old defense contractor leaked thousands of classified documents to journalists, revealing a massive secret government surveillance program. Intelligence agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. had for years been quietly collecting information about private citizens around the globe systems at the National Security Agency or NSA, where Snowden was a contractor, stored the data.
In his first ever interview in June of 2013 with the British newspaper, The Guardian Snowden said the public deserved an explanation.
SNOWDEN: Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded, and the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude. You don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made.
CHAKRABARTI: Less than two weeks after Snowden publicly identified himself as the leaker, the United States government charged him with three felonies. Two of them under the 1917 Espionage Act. They canceled his passport. Snowden knew of the potential consequences associated with a leak of this scale. He felt it was worth it, but he wasn’t confident that Americans would too.
SNOWDEN: The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media, all of these disclosures. They’ll know the length that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society, but they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Magna Chakrabarti. In 2020, 7 years after Snowden’s Leaks, a U.S. Court ruled that what the NSA had been doing was illegal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the secret collection of millions of Americans telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may also have been unconstitutional.
As for Edward Snowden, he lives in Russia. He’s been denied asylum by some 27 countries. The U.S. government still considers him a traitor. And he still faces those 2013 charges, meaning the US government through administrations, both Democratic and Republican, has not changed its animus towards Edward Snowden.
Animus clearly articulated by then Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who called Snowden’s Action quote, “The most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history.” End quote. Here’s Clapper at a Senate select Intelligence Committee hearing in January, 2014.
JAMES CLAPPER: As a consequence, the nation is less safe and its people less secure. What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs. As a result, we’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners. Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods, and tradecraft.
And the insights that they are gaining are making our job much, much harder.
CHAKRABARTI: The massive impact and years long shockwaves reverberated, not just in the U.S. but in the U.K. as well. Snowden’s leaks were reported in collaboration by top journalists in both countries. In the U.K., the coverage was led by The Guardian newspaper, which came under fire from the British government led at the time by then Prime Minister David Cameron.
DAVID CAMERON: I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways the guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security advisor and cabinet secretary, to destroy the files they had.
They went ahead and destroyed those files. So they know that what they’re dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think it’s up to select committees in this house if they want to examine this issue and make further recommendations.
CHAKRABARTI: Alan Rusbridger was the editor of The Guardian at the time.
The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize along with the Washington Post for its Snowden reporting in 2014. Rusbridger stepped down from The Guardian in 2015 and now serves as editor of the Prospect Magazine, and he joins us today from London. Alan Rusbridger, welcome to On Point.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Hello. So first and foremost, back in 2013, as then Prime Minister Cameron said, were you politely asked by his government to destroy the drives that had the information that Edward Snowden had given to you?
RUSBRIDGER: They were quite polite. David Cameron said his permanent secretary is the head of the civil service. A man called Jeremy Heywood to come and see me. And he initially said, “I think you’ve had your fun. You’ve done enough, and now is the time to stop.” I said words to the effect that I didn’t think it was the job of government to tell newspapers what to publish and what not to publish. And we left it at that for a week or so. And then he came back and was a little sterner and said that, “If we didn’t stop publishing, they would stop us from publishing.”
And the compromise we settled on was the one you’ve just referred to, which was to destroy the computers we were working on, having told the British government that we had already shared the material with the New York Times.
CHAKRABARTI: And just to remind folks, the manner in which you had stored the information that Snowden gave you was in a isolated room using air gapped computers that had never been used before and would never be used again.
I think there was passwords, three levels of password authentication that were needed. And there was a guard, standing outside the door 24 hours a day? Yes?
RUSBRIDGER: Yeah, we appreciated the sensitivity of the material we were handling, and we went to all those extremes and more to protect the machines themselves and the, the material that was on those machines.
I mean, I completely understand the concerns of both American and British states. But it did feel to me an odd piece of almost theater. That this act of destruction should be required of us when they knew that we had the material in our New York office and at the New York Times. And took remarkably little interest in the conditions in which the New York Times, for instance, was holding the material.
CHAKRABARTI: Ah, so this brings me back to what Cameron said in that clip from the House of Commons that we played. Because yes, while it’s amusing for we Americans to look at this very quote-unquote polite British moment, I think what’s more important as David Cameron asserts or asserted in 2013, that your agreement to destroy the drives was essentially The Guardian’s implicit admission.
That what you were doing was illegal and a threat to British national security. Which maybe in retrospect might explain why they only cared that you were destroying what was in London. What do you think, it was actually a request made to you so that the government could then turn it into sort of its public political advantage?
RUSBRIDGER: Yes. I think, again, what Cameron said there was for the benefit of probably people on his own side, and people in the security services. And I can understand the pressure that he was under. And that explains to me probably that he, by coming along and asking us to destroy our own machines, he could at least, he had a story to tell.
But it certainly was not an admission by us that what we were doing was either illegal or damaging. It was simply a way of maintaining the ability to publish. I think your listeners should be aware that whereas in America it is virtually impossible for the government to try and get prior restraint, to try and get an injunction to stop publications from going ahead and publishing, in Britain that that’s not the case.
So we were better off and safer publishing in New York anyway.
CHAKRABARTI: Yes, and that would be the difference between having the first Amendment in the United States Constitution versus whatever interpretation of British common law there exists over many centuries. Yeah. So, we’ll come back to that in just a moment.
But the reason why, it might seem odd that I’m focusing for a while on one tiny, one small incident and what was and actually continues to be a massive and complex story is because one of the things that we want to look at over the course of this hour is how both the United States and U.K. governments reacted at the time, and what, if anything, has changed.
So I just wanted to go over a little bit of ground, in terms of the machinations that you experienced with the British government when you first started publishing the Snowden revelations in The Guardian. So, let’s go back. When did you first hear of this man named Edward Snowden, that he might have some things that would be of interest to the global public?
RUSBRIDGER: It was around June, 2013, that I got a call from our U.S. editor, Janine Gibson, who said that she had been contacted by our columnist Glenn Greenwald, who lived in Brazil. To say that he had been contacted by someone claiming to work for the NSA. So, it was a fairly long chain of communication.
And the initial decision that was being required of me was, “Should we go and see this mysterious figure who claimed to have this material in Hong Kong?” And my decision was that we should. And we put Greenwald on a plane to Hong Kong to meet him. And I simultaneously discussed sending a reporter also from London.
Now, I mean, that sounds like an obvious decision, and I know the Washington Post, who had also been contacted by Snowden decided in a different way. They decided not to go to Hong Kong. So you can see right from the first phone call there were multiple difficult, ethical, and legal and communications difficulties to solve.
CHAKRABARTI: And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the initial decision that you made to send reporters to where Edward Snowden was hiding out. Because there was only really a period of what, a couple of days in which these decisions had to be made.
Because as you recently wrote, one of the first documents that The Guardian saw was marked at the top. Top secret, SI, NOFORN, meaning it was a government document of one of the highest levels of classification that wasn’t even something that the U.S. would want foreign governments to see, let alone newspaper journalists.
I bring that up because given what you just said, Alan, about the fact that in fact, media protections in the U.K. are arguably weaker than they are in the U.S., what convinced you to take the risk to pursue the story?
RUSBRIDGER: From the briefing that I was given about what Snowden had said to Greenwald, it seemed to me that there were very profound issues about privacy, about the reach of the state in modern day surveillance, about the possible overlaps between the big tech companies and their capabilities and governments.
So there was enough there to persuade me that this was, if true, and if substantiated by real documents, that there was a public interest in at least meeting and having the initial conversation. But you’re right, we were under considerable time pressure. Because I think Snowden, the moment he effectively fled America knew that it was only a matter of probably days before somebody realized he’d gone missing.
And the search to find him began.
CHAKRABARTI: You know what’s interesting is obviously just to remind folks, Edward Snowden was not in the United States at the time that The Guardian was doing its initial reporting. And Alan, I just recently read an article by you Ewen MacAskill who was on The Guardian’s reporting team at the time.
And again, even though there was this very tight timeline in terms of how much you could learn from Snowden, getting the documents, doing all the additional reporting that was required before releasing it to the public. He wrote that what remains a puzzle to him is why U.S. intelligence agencies seemingly never tried to stop Snowden or The Guardian in those early days. Because that every day when they went to go see Snowden in his hotel room, they expected that they wouldn’t find him there, that he would’ve finally have been arrested, but that didn’t happen. Do you have any insight or thoughts now, a decade later, as to why?
RUSBRIDGER: I don’t really, it is curious.
And when I talked about David Cameron sending his guy to come and see me, that was, from memory, about 10 days after we had started publishing material that also affected not just the NSA, but Britain’s counterpart to the NSA, GCHQ and I had expected a knock on the door rather sooner.
It wasn’t a surprise that Cameron’s guy arrived, but I don’t know why they didn’t come sooner.
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Was there ever a time over the course of the multiple stories that came out, as The Guardian was reporting them, that you ever reached a point where you thought perhaps now we are revealing information that could be a threat to British National Security?
RUSBRIDGER: This will sound quaint to some listeners. But in the U.K. we have a system called the DA Notice System, the Defense Advisory Notice System, which means that before running a story, it’s supposed to be a voluntary arrangement. You ring up, I forget if he was a rear admiral or a retired group captain. But it’s, anyway, a retired person from the Armed services. You tell them what you’re intended to publish and they ring you back some hours later with any concerns. And we were also, of course, in, in touch directly with the NSA. And so we had a pretty good dialogue going. And I know at one point we invited the rear admiral to come into The Guardian, and he said that he had seen nothing that we had published that contravened his rule, his terms of reference.
So I think both us and the Washington Post were careful at every step that we went, and we only referred to the material that was about the surveillance of civilian populations. We didn’t go further. And start looking at material to do with war or intelligence in military situations, et cetera.
CHAKRABARTI: But Snowden had those materials. Those were part of what he was willing to leak?
RUSBRIDGER: There were documents in the trove that went beyond purely the surveillance of civilians.
CHAKRABARTI: Huh. Okay. But I’ve seen you write recently that it was actually easier to work with the United States government than the British government in this sort of back-and-forth pre-publication dance that happened.
Can you tell me more about that?
RUSBRIDGER: The American authorities are just more open. So typically, if we had a particular document that interested us, we would ring up, say the NSA or the Pentagon or the White House, and we say that we’ve got this document. And they would generally put a desk officer in charge, in touch with us who knew the document.
And you could then have a reasonable discussion saying, “Look, there’s something at the bottom of page five. We would rather you didn’t publish a screenshot of,” or whatever. In Britain the approach is very difficult, very different. The response of the intelligence agencies is to say that we can’t confirm or deny that such a document exists.
And you certainly would never end up talking to a desk officer. It was very much more arm’s length in the U.K. It’s just the way they operate. The British Intelligence Services have always been much more secretive and don’t really have a telephone number even you can ring.
CHAKRABARTI: Forgive me for asking this, and it might sound a little ridiculous, but in hearing you describe it, these very delicate back and forths between you as the editor of not just a reporting team, but a major British newspaper. And the government of the U.K. and U.S. Intelligence Services, it sounds all rather professional and collegial. Not at all what we see in the movies when an intelligence officer may make a visit to your home and either quietly make some veiled threats or yell over the phone about, “You can’t do this. It’s going to hurt the country.”
Was it really as tension free as you’re describing?
RUSBRIDGER: There were certainly tensions and there were times when we pushed up and we disagreed with the people we were talking to, but I remember debating at one point of a former general counsel at the NSA who said, look, we were absolutely furious with Snowden, and if I get my hands on him, I would lock him up and throw away the key. But once the material is in the hands of journalists, our job is to respect the First Amendment and to work with the journalist to cause as little damage as possible. So I think on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a kind of grown-up resignation that we weren’t to blame for the leak.
That was a lapse of NSA security that had led to that. And that it was in the best interest of everybody to maintain a cordial dialogue.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, interesting. But again, to the public, the British government, David Cameron’s government had no problem pillaring you, though.
RUSBRIDGER: No, they were much more aggressive than their American counterpoints.
Again, whether this was, it was a coalition government at the time. He had political problems of his own to answer. And also, I think the difference between the two countries is that in the United States, there is much more of a tradition of aggressive reporting about national security.
That kind of reporting of national security is pretty rare in the U.K.
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Okay. So if I may, I’d like to play a couple of moments from your appearance before a parliamentary commission that was launched following the Snowden revelations. So it was a Home Affairs Select Committee.
And here’s a moment where you, Alan Rusbridger, were being questioned by then parliamentary committee chair Keith Vaz.
KEITH VAZ: I love this country. Do you love this country?
RUSBRIDGER: How do you answer that kind of question? We live in a democracy. Most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country who love this country.
I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question, but yes we are patriots. And one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of the democracy and the nature of a free press, and the fact that one can in this country discuss and report these things.
CHAKRABARTI: That was in 2013, 2014, Alan Rusbridger? It sounds like what you’re saying is that perhaps the free press isn’t all that free or not free enough in the U.K.? At the time I was saying that there were two police officers in the next-door room who were next up on the stand, and I believe that the investigation into what we did went on for four years.
So I think if they could have prosecuted us, they would’ve prosecuted us. And again, as it shows up, the different culture between the two countries. Last month, Daniel Ellsberg, who was, if you like, the Edward Snowden of his day is remembered now as the hero of the Pentagon Papers.
The man who took on Nixon and the New York Times and the Washington Post, published those very important revelations about the Vietnam war. But at the time, Nixon wanted to lock Daniel Ellsberg up and thought he was a terrible traitor. And that says something profound about, I think, why the determinant of the national interest shouldn’t be the government of the day, why you have to have a free press to take their own independent view of what is important.
CHAKRABARTI: So regarding the media’s ability to report subsequent stories about a government’s activity, has it become easier or more challenging in the U.K.?
RUSBRIDGER: I think it has become more challenging and will become more challenging still. Certainly, in Australia, one of the other Five Eye countries, they immediately passed rather punitive restrictions on who could publish what.
And in the U.K., at the moment, there’s a security bill going through, which would punish anyone who did what I did with 14 years in jail. Under your equivalent, our equivalent of the Espionage Act, the Official Secrets Act. And the most contentious thing, I think, is that no editor would be able to explain why they did what they did.
So it would purely be up to the prosecution to prove that you had the documents, that you published them, sometimes not even published, that the mere fact of possession of the documents would be enough. So there’s no question that the stable wall, the stable door has been firmly shut and bolted with the hope that no one would ever do what The Guardian or the Washington Post did in this case.
CHAKRABARTI: So let me reiterate. In the United Kingdom right now, there is a potential law being considered that would not only make it illegal for a journalist to possess classified documents, but that the mere possession of such documents could land that person, that editor in jail for 14 years.
RUSBRIDGER: Up to 14 years, yes.
CHAKRABARTI: Huh. We’re going to come back to how much has changed regarding the media in just a few minutes. But there’s also the big question of how much has changed regarding the very government surveillance programs that Edward Snowden revealed back in 2013. So Marcy Wheeler joins us now. She’s in Limerick, Ireland.
She’s an American independent journalist, writing about national security and civil liberties, and writes the blog “emptywheel.” Marcy Wheeler, welcome.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so first of all, I think you’ve been listening to all that Alan Rusbridger has been saying about 2013 and what happened then.
Can you just quickly remind us specifically the two NSA programs that garnered the most attention in the Snowden leaks and why they were so important to know about?
WHEELER: Okay, the one was called Section 215 and that was an attempt to get the phone metadata from a set of calls made within the United States that then could be accessed reportedly just for counter-terrorism purposes.
That was the first disclosure. And then the second program was called Section 702, which was a way to get content from Cloud providers and then also independently by tapping into the phone backbone.
But to get content from providers like Google and Microsoft and Apple and all of the Silicon Valley based companies that the entire world relies on. Those two programs, now, Section 702 was actually public. And so there was a good bit about Section 702 we knew before Snowden leaked that document. What he disclosed that was most sensitive, I think to the government, was the name of the providers who were participating. Microsoft, Apple, Google.
And we learned over time, partly through disclosures via other channels, partly through government disclosures, the substance of what that entailed and how intrusive that is. Although, we learned that as well in criminal prosecutions in the United States, we see just how much you get when you get all the content that Google has on you.
So that program was known, but what Snowden’s disclosure did was make it publicly, widely known. And provide, importantly, and provide proof of it. That the U.S. government had to admit to certain things they had been denying since 2007 when it was legalized. But even here in Europe, provide proof of things that activists here in Europe have been able to do, especially with Facebook, to crack down on how much data gets shared from Europe back to the United States. So that’s that program section.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about what has and hasn’t changed regarding not only the government’s relationship with journalists when they have a major leak on their hands, but also what’s changed regarding government surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden a decade ago. And I’m joined today by Marcy Wheeler. She’s an American independent journalist who writes about national security and civil liberties. And Alan Rusbridger joins us as well. He was the editor of The Guardian in 2013 when the Snowden leaks were first revealed and published by The Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and ProPublica.
And I just want to take a moment to play another couple of clips from back in 2013, 2014, and this is Alan Rusbridger once again facing a line of questioning from a parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee. So the first voice you’ll hear is then parliamentary committee chair Keith Vaz.
VAZ: Do you recognize what you have done? Do you accept that this has damaged the country? Because this is severe criticism that I haven’t seen before from the head of our security services?
RUSBRIDGER: Yeah. I think it is important context that editors of probably the world’s leading newspapers in America, the Washington Post, the New York Times took virtually identical decisions. So this is not a rogue newspaper. It is serious newspapers who’ve had long experience of dealing with national security. The problem with these accusations is that they tend to be very vague. And they’re not rooted in specific stories. We’ve published no names and we’ve lost control of no names.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Alan Rusbridger back in 2013, 2014, time period. But again, from that clip, you hear a lot of questioning about the journalist’s responsibility, but what about the government’s responsibility to legally surveil people of suspicion rather than the broad innocent public in general?
Then director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a U.S. Senate committee in 2014 that really the question for him was the Snowden leaks are putting the lives of members of the intelligence community at risk.
CLAPPER: We’re beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries, particularly terrorists, a disturbing trend, which I anticipate will continue. It pains me greatly that the National Security Agency and its magnificent workforce have been pilloried in public commentary. The real facts are that the men and women who work at NSA, both military and civilian, have done their utmost to protect this country and do so in a lawful manner.
As I and other leaders in the community have said many times, NSA’s job is not to target the emails and phone calls of U.S. citizens. The agency does collect foreign intelligence. The whole reason NSA has existed since 1952, performing critical missions that I’m sure the American people wanted to carry out.
CHAKRABARTI: That was James Clapper back in 2014. So Marcy Wheeler, as we hear Clapper there saying the entire purpose of the NSA is to do what’s revealed in the Snowden leaks. What’s the big deal? But regarding Section 702, which you had described, which was already public. Okay, I understand that.
But you were going to also tell us about Section 215, the other big program revealed in the Snowden documents. Just briefly, what was 215?
WHEELER: So Section 215 was an effort to fill in from U.S. persons, a collection of all the phone calls that get made internationally, both outside of the United States and from outside of the United States into the United States.
So it was about what I’ll call telephony calls. So calls that you get that you would eventually be billed for by your phone provider, and it was for Americans, systematic. But the United States collected the same kind of information overseas, targeting people overseas that has never been reigned in.
And importantly in the United States, you can get that same kind of information. The metadata and phone calls, the FBI can get that pretty easily. And if the FBI has any interest in you at all, it’s going to do that. The really scary thing about the program was that the NSA decided they were just going to try and collect everything. And get it there so that if they decided they needed to refer to phone calls easily or even two people within two degrees of you, as a phone person, they would have it on hand. So whereas the FBI would have to go out and get it, the NSA would already have it on hand.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. But Section 215 has subsequently became defunct. It’s no longer operational. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that functionally though the FBI still does this.
WHEELER: Yeah, and there are two things going on. One is the FBI can do this with what’s called metadata, so they’re not getting content. They can get that kind of information pretty easily on Americans. And the NSA can get that kind of information pretty easily on everyone overseas. But importantly since then, the program went defunct in 2015.
The law is off the books. You can’t do new collection programs. But one thing that’s important since then is we’ve all changed how we communicate. So where we still make cell phone calls we are more and more making, communicating, like we are right now. I’m sitting in Ireland, and I am doing a radio interview across the internet.
And it doesn’t involve telephony at all. I make phone calls all the time, or Skype calls or Zoom calls using the internet, and that doesn’t involve telephony at all. And so one of the things that’s happened is that program, in addition to being ruled unlawful and have the law dropped, the technology has moved on as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. To that point though, I think that’s why the companies, the telecommunication and digital companies’ willingness to cooperate with the government was the other big revelation from the Snowden documents, wasn’t it, Marcy? because if so, then not much has changed there, right? That’s still an issue that the government, various governments can go to what? Facebook, Twitter, whatever you want, and say, help us gather these data that are coming over the internet.
WHEELER: Exactly. And inside and some of what had been done via Section 215 and some other authorities actually would have moved to Section 702, so they can get content with Section 702.
But they also can get metadata. Now, they can’t target me as an American citizen, even though I’m in Ireland. They have to target foreigners, but at least so long as they’re targeting foreigners, they can go now to Apple, or Google or Facebook to get the communications that are happening entirely online. To get the metadata of that, and then to get the communications from that.
That said, this year Section 702 needs to be reauthorized. And it is quite contentious, and it is unlikely that is going to be reauthorized without some significant changes. Privacy activists in the United States want to require a warrant to access any U.S. person data. And in Europe, GDPR, which is a rule about whether you can send data from Europe to the United States and other things that rule is increasingly cracking down on Facebook and other U.S companies practices of sending data overseas.
So those two legal developments really are a change in how much data is going to be available to the NSA, by asking a Silicon Valley company. Those two laws together are working together to begin to change the landscape by which the U.S. can spy on the rest of the world via 702.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist write writing about national security and civil liberties on the blog “emptywheel.” Thank you so much for joining us.
WHEELER: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Alan Rusbridger, I appreciate you listening along. As Marcy was describing what has and hasn’t changed regarding U.S. law and government surveillance have, has there been any evolution in U.K. law, not regarding the media, but in terms of government surveillance there?
RUSBRIDGER:I think two things have happened. One is that certainly the conversations I’ve had, the intelligence people I’ve met subsequently say, look, these known revelations we disapprove of them, but they were bound to happen.
And we did need to have that public conversation at some point. Because they admit they were using laws designed and conceived in the age of copper wires and crocodile clips, to rule over this new limitless ability to eavesdrop on virtually anybody. So there have been a series of parliamentary discussions, debates, and laws passed, which really put it on a solid footing.
And I think even Edward Snowden himself couldn’t complain about that because I think he, that was really what he wanted. He wanted a public debate. But the second thing that’s happened is encryption. And I think the response of the Internet companies and millions of individuals is now to go to conversations using end-to-end encryption, which can’t be intercepted.
In a way, it’s been one step forward and one step back.
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. We could spend quite a bit of time talking about changes in technology and law, but one thing that the Edward Snowden clip that we played at the very top of the show, which I think is important to get a deeper understanding of is, has there been any change in the public’s tolerance for these kinds of surveillance programs?
Because Alan, you’ve written about that in the U.K., that new national security bill that you had described earlier, there’s been just barely more than a whisper of protest, which is fascinating to me, even though, as you point out, in your estimation that there’s a tradition of believing in privacy in the U.K. that dates back to 1765 to a case that you say later became the basis for the Fourth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
I’d love if you could just take a quick minute to tell me about what happened in the subsequent years when you went to different places and talked about the Snowden revelation. You always asked the audience, including audiences of intelligence agents, a very specific question.
What was it and how did they answer?
RUSBRIDGER: I would ask them, anybody in the audience who would feel comfortable if a police officer arrived at their house this evening and said, “Can we take away all your papers? We’re not necessarily going to look at them, but we want to store them in case they ever become relevant.
Is there a single person in the audience who would be up for that?” And in no gathering I ever addressed, did a single hand ever go up for that. And I think that’s down to this sort of 18th century concept of forgive the gendered language, but an Englishman’s home is his castle. And it was no business of the state to be seizing papers and entering people’s houses.
That was the 1765 case. And so I think there is this strong sense of privacy from the state, which is important to people. Simultaneously, I think people are realistic and say, “Look if you really need this material to keep us safe, then we’re willing within certain bounds and within the law and with proper oversight to allow that.”
So at least we’re having that conversation now. And I think before Snowdens’ revelations, there was no such conversation.
CHAKRABARTI: But there has to be faith in government when the idea of keeping us safe is so vague. You talked about Daniel Ellsberg before and how correctly at the time, he was deemed a traitor by the United States government for revealing that the Pentagon knew it was losing the war in Vietnam.
It’s very like affirmatively arguable that the government was saying, Ellsberg did the opposite of keeping America, especially Americans in Southeast Asia safe. And the NSA, you heard Clapper saying the same thing in 2013, 2014, that in order to keep us safe from terrorists, we have to surveil everybody.
That sort of clashes with this idea that there is such a thing as privacy. Does it surprise you that there has been no backlash against, again, this new national security law that’s being considered in the U.K., that would make the very means for evaluating the government’s claim of safety, i.e. the journalism that you had done 10 years ago, almost impossible?
RUSBRIDGER: I think actually there’s another law in Britain, passing a lot of laws at the moment, which may test where the boundary lies. So there’s an online safety bill, which is going to prohibit encryption. I.e., you have to give the government the key. And quite a lot of companies are just saying, “We simply won’t operate in the U.K.”
Because there is no way of having encryption for government only. And so people like WhatsApp and Telegram, and Signal, et cetera, are saying, bye-bye U.K. We won’t be there. And I think that would appall millions of Brits who use those services. And I think would lead to the kind of discussion that probably the intelligence services don’t want to get into. Because these are highly popular services which people use because they know that they are, as far as people know, unless you can get in, penetrate the phone itself, these are very secure ways of communicating.
So I think that where the line lies between the individuals’ wish for privacy and the acknowledgement of what our collective safety depends on, has still to be tested.
CHAKRABARTI: We have about one minute left, Alan, and I’m wondering if for you, personally, the process of overseeing the reporting of the Snowden leaks, did it change your view of government?
RUSBRIDGER: I had been, I went into this story not knowing much about, or having thought deeply about it, and it was quite an eye-opener to see the capabilities that the state had developed in a very short period of time. In, we’re talking about really 10 years. And so I’ve, I continue to this day to feel that what we did was important and that it’s the beginning of a debate that will probably last years, if not decades.
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