Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose unprecedented leak of top-secret documents led to a worldwide debate about the nature of surveillance, insisted on Monday that his actions had improved the national security of the United States rather than undermined it, and declared that he would do it all again despite the personal sacrifices it caused him.
In remarks to the SXSW culture and technology conference in Texas, delivered by video link from his exile in Russia, Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, took issue with claims by senior officials that he had placed the U.S. in danger.
He also rejected as demonstrably false the suggestions by some members of Congress that his files had found their way into the hands of the intelligence agencies of China or Russia.
Mr. Snowden spoke against the backdrop of an image of the U.S. constitution, which he said he had taken an oath to protect but had seen “violated on a mass scale” while working for the U.S. government. He accepted praise from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, accorded the first question via Twitter, who said a simple “thank you” to Mr. Snowden and told him: “Your actions have been profoundly in the public interest.” The session provided a rare and extensive glimpse into the thoughts of Mr. Snowden, granted temporary asylum by Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport. He struck back against claims made again last week by the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, that his release of secret documents to the Guardian and other outlets last year had weakened American cyber-defences.
“These things are improving national security, these are improving the communications not just of Americans, but everyone in the world,” Mr. Snowden said. “Because we rely on the same standard, we rely on the ability to trust our communications, and without that, we don’t have anything.” He added later that thanks to the more secure communication activity that had been encouraged by his disclosures, “the public has benefited, the government has benefited, and every society in the world has benefited”.
Mr. Snowden rejected claims that potential adversaries of the US, such as Russia and China, had obtained the files he had been carrying. “That has never happened, and it is never going to happen. If suddenly the Chinese government knew everything the NSA was doing, we would notice the difference,” said Mr. Snowden, noting that U.S. infiltration of Russia and China was extensive.
He sharply criticised Alexander and Michael Hayden, his predecessor as NSA director, as the two officials to have most “harmed our internet security and actually our national security” in the era since the September 11 terrorist attacks by “elevating offensive operations” over cyber-defence.
“When you are the one country in the world that has a vault that is more full than everyone else’s, it doesn’t make any sense to be attacking all day and never defending your vault,” he said. “And it makes even less sense when you let the standards for vaults worldwide have a big back door that anyone can walk in.” The 30-year-old claimed that by spending so much effort on harvesting communications data en masse, U.S. security agencies were failing to pick up would-be terrorists such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the brothers alleged to have bombed last year’s Boston marathon, who had been previously flagged to the U.S. as a cause for concern by Russian authorities.
“We are monitoring everyone’s communications rather than suspects’ communications,” he said. “If we hadn’t spent so much on mass surveillance, if we had followed traditional patterns, we might have caught him.” Mr. Snowden also pointed to the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” who attempted to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The U.S. failed to intercept him despite several opportunities, including a warning from his father to U.S. officials in Nigeria.
An audience of 3,500 packed into an auditorium in Austin applauded several of Mr. Snowden’s answers to questions from a pair of onstage moderators and others submitted through Twitter. Despite a glitchy and intermittent video link that he said was running through seven proxies, Mr. Snowden looked relaxed and confident.
He said that while the U.S. had “an oversight model that could work” to guard against excess by intelligence agencies, in reality it had proved ineffectual. “The problem is when your overseers are not interested in oversight,” he said, and “champion the NSA instead of holding them to account”.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has admitted not telling the truth when he told a congressional hearing last year that the government was not “collecting data on millions of Americans”. Mr. Snowden said Mr. Clapper had shown officials “can lie to the country, lie to the Congress, and face not even a criticism”.
He encouraged ordinary internet users to protect themselves against surveillance by encrypting both their hard drives and their online activity, describing encryption as “the defence against the dark arts in the digital realm”. He also advised people to browse the web anonymously using the Tor system.
He urged software developers to create more user-friendly secure communications tools that could “pass the Glenn Greenwald test”, referring to Mr. Greenwald’s inability to communicate securely using PGP encryption when Mr. Snowden first approached the journalist, then working for the Guardian.
However he warned: “If you are a target of the NSA, it is game over no matter what unless you are taking really technical steps to protect yourself.” Despite now being unable to return to the U.S., where he faces a criminal indictment, a defiant Mr. Snowden said he did not regret his decision to orchestrate the biggest leak in the history of U.S. intelligence. “Would I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes,” he said. “Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to know.” By the end of his interview, the audience was on its feet to deliver a standing ovation. Mr. Snowden smiled and looked slightly embarrassed, before being abruptly cut off by the end of the video call, when the screen fell blank.
© Guardian News Service