Peter Taylor: Why did you decide to do what you did?
Edward Snowden: When I was sitting at my desk, working with tools of mass surveillance
every day, I saw that all of our
communications were being intercepted all of the time in the absence of any
suspicion of wrongdoing. And this was something that was occurring without our
knowledge, without our consent.
I worked as an infrastructure analyst. I had a special
level of clearance, called ‘Priv Ac’, privileged access. Where normal people
have to request access to this document or that document, I had access to
everything by nature of my role.
And that included documents from the British
The documents, they established that mass
surveillance, the surveillance of populations instead of individual suspects,
was occurring every day, all the time.
We’re expected to trust these agencies,
access to the total details of our lives.
PT: And they’re expected to trust people like you, a
trust that you betrayed. The trust works two ways.
ES: I fulfilled the roles and the
obligations of my oath in a manner which they did not. I haven’t benefited in
any way from disclosure of this information. Moreover, I have never published a
single document. I worked with journalists who in American society at least are
the representatives of the public in determining what the public interest is in
understanding certain facts, and realities that the government
many times would prefer to keep secret.
PT: When you
decided to make these revelations, did you think about the possible
consequences, that you might end up an exile, not necessarily in Russia, but
that you will be pursued? And the United States government is unlikely to call
it a day, it’s going to pursue you until it gets you?
ES: Er, of course.
PT: You must have done.
ES: Yeah I, I don’t think there’s anybody that can be
in that situation.
PT: And many years in jail.
ES: I was more concerned with the consequences for
society in general – would this cause harm, would anybody face some unnecessary
risk as a result – than I was for myself. I expected that the most likely
consequence would be that I would be, you know, in an orange jumpsuit, super-max
prison in isolation or Guantanamo.
What I thought about exhaustively was, how do
we make sure that we know what we need to in order to be able to protect
ourselves? And to be able to protect free society against the natural
inclinations of secret agencies and bureaucracy, as technology continues to
advance, and they gain more and more power.
There’s never been a convincing case made that anyone’s
come to harm as a result of these publications. But there is an exhaustive list
of public goods that have come from the same result.
PT: What is the relationship between the NSA, the
National Security Agency in America and GCHQ, the UK equivalent?
ES: The easiest way to conceptualise that relationship
is that the GCHQ is for all most intents and purposes a subsidiary of the NSA.
The NSA more often than not provides funding, I believe they provide millions of dollars to the GCHQ’s budget every
year. They provide technology, they provide tasking and direction as to what they should
go after. And in exchange, the GCHQ provides access to communications that are
collected in the United Kingdom and at all of the different bases and points of
collection that are under the control of the United Kingdom.
PT: Around the world?
ES: Around the world.
PT: It’s not true to say they’re just a secondary
department. They share the common aims and the common aim is the greater good,
isn’t it, to keep us all safe and secure?
ES: Well that’s no different than saying that a subsidiary
of a particular corporation that shares the same aim of profit is, you know, any
different because they share the same goal.
PT: The NSA and GCHQ say, yes, we collect massive,
huge amounts of data, but the actual amount of data that we look at in
particular is miniscule, that they’re not in the business of finding out about
everybody, they have particular targets in which they’re interested and their
collection methodology means that they can, in the end, identify the people that
they’re looking for: the terrorists or the criminals or the drug traffickers. But
to find out who those targets are they’ve got to collect mass data.
ES: Well let’s presume that their claims match the
reality of what’s happening. Let’s say that they are collecting all of this
information about everybody, they know everything that you do, everywhere you
PT: They’re not interested.
ES: Right, what you do behind closed doors, they’re not interested and they don’t read it and they only use this when it’s
necessary and proportionate to a serious criminal threat – that sounds like a
pretty persuasive claim that they could make to the public and get legislation
to support that right?
So why didn’t they?
They found that these programmes were not effective in stopping
PT: Many members of the public, certainly in the UK,
would say, yes, GCHQ are doing this, and frankly I don’t care if it helps them
identify the bad guys and I’ve got nothing to hide – I’m not a bad guy.
ES: Many people would say that and they wouldn’t
necessarily be wrong, and this is something that people can debate, but the
question that’s raised by that is, is it true? Are these programmes effective?
Do they keep us safe? The White House
appointed two investigatory panels, and they found that these programmes were
not effective in stopping terrorist attacks.
PT: What information, what intelligence can the
agencies get from this, a smart phone?
ES: Who you call, what you’ve texted, the things
you’ve browsed on your phone, the list of your contacts, the places you’ve
been, the wireless locations that you or the wireless networks that your phone
is associated with, for example, at your home, in your office.
So, the ‘Smurf Suite’ is a collection of capabilities
specifically targeting the iPhone. Dreamy Smurf is the power management tool
which means turning your phone on and off without you knowing.
PT: Even if I turn my phone off.
PT: And then we’ve got Nosey Smurf, what’s Nosey
ES: Nosey Smurf is the ‘hot micing’ tool. ‘Hot micing’
is when you activate the microphone on a telephone as if it were having a call
but without anybody dialling a call. So, for example, if it’s in your pocket
they can turn the microphone on and listen to everything that’s going on around
PT: Even if my phone is switched off.
ES: Even if your phone is switched off, because
they’ve got the other tools for turning it on.
PT: Tracker Smurf, what’s Tracker Smurf?
ES: Ah, that’s a geo-location tool which allows them
to follow you with a greater precision than you would get from the typical
triangulation of cell phone towers.
PT: And lastly, Paranoid Smurf, what is Paranoid
ES: Paranoid Smurf is actually a self-protection tool
that’s used to armour their manipulation of your phone. So, for example, if you
wanted to take the phone in to get it serviced because you saw something
strange going on or you suspected something was wrong, it makes it much more
difficult for any technician to realise that anything’s gone amiss.
They want to own your phone instead of you.
PT: This particular document refers to just the iPhone.
Do those principles apply to other smart phones?
ES: Absolutely, I mean, android phones are the major
competitor, any smart phone… What you want to think about is a cell phone is a
constantly connected location device that has a microphone attached to it and
if you were a surveillance agency, it’s a sort of a target that’s simply too
tempting to ignore.
ES: Computer Network Exploitation is basically digital
espionage, you’re trying to control things that you don’t own through digital
code, digital weapons, to gain information intelligence about their operation.
PT: One of the documents that you reveal, again marked
‘Top Secret’, is about computer network exploitation, and one section refers to
the way – this is a GCHQ document – refers to the way in which GCHQ hacked into
or hacked the Cisco Router into Pakistan and it says this affords access to
almost any user of the internet inside Pakistan. Now how would they do that?
ES: So, the way the internet works is you’ve got your
computer on one end and you’ve got the other person’s computer on the other but
in order to make that wire connection here to here, it’s got to go under the
ground and through all these different buildings, through network operators,
network service providers. Now what the Intelligence Agencies like to do is
they’ll hack those network service providers and secretly take ownership of the
devices that are affecting traffic.
PT: Without the service providers knowing about it?
ES: Without the service providers ever knowing about
PT: And when in this particular case Cisco found out,
what was that reaction, what was Cisco’s reaction?
ES: Well the companies will be incredibly angry
because what they’re doing is they’re compromising the trust in the product, in
the services that these companies, which are critical parts of our economy,
have with their customers. The questions that these companies ask is, who do we
work for, our customers or the government?
This GCHQ document that shows how GCHQ accessed the Cisco
routers, with all the material coming in from Pakistan and being passed onto
GCHQ, was legal, wasn’t illegal, because the document is about seeking
authorisation for continuation of these kinds of programmes. So we’re not
talking about illegality here. This was quite legal?
Sometimes what’s scariest is not what the government
is doing that’s unlawful, but what they’re doing that is completely lawful. Now
the dangers of these programmes is that when you hack a router, you’re not
monitoring one person, you’re monitoring millions of people.
PT: And that’s why they hack the routers?
PT: The UK parliament is about to start debating an
important new piece of legislation called the Investigatory Powers Bill. What
would you say to our legislators when they’re considering what they should say
and how they should vote?
ES: You need to impose a structure of oversight that
will allow both members of government and the public to verify that their
activities are proper and appropriate at all times, and that those who violate
them can be held to account.
I think the real question is, who is best positioned to
assess the lawfulness of an intrusion into an individual’s life rights: a
minister or a judge? When I look at it, it seems quite clear to me that the courts
should be the place to resolve those controversies.
PRISM revealed that the government would go to
this secret court, that would provide these secret orders, it’s a rubber stamp
court that never says no. And they would say, we want to have access to this
individual’s communications or that individual’s communications without going
through the typical legal process of an open court.
PT: Nobody knew this was going on.
ES: And nobody knew that this was going on.
PT: Did the material that was handed by the social
media companies to the NSA, was that shared with GCHQ?
ES: There’s no way to know, in many cases the answer
would be yes.
PT: On social media, at the moment there appears to be
a standoff between the social media companies, the Googles, the Facebooks, the
Twitters and the government, the intelligence agencies. Intelligence agencies
say we need access to the material you’ve got because we wish to identify the
bad guys. The social media companies or most of them are saying, but wait a
minute, our priority is privacy. Where do you stand on that?
ES: Right, it’s really a question of free enterprise.
Who do companies work for? Do they work for their customers or do they work for
governments, and remember, if a company begins accepting requests to break the
security of their communications for one government, they have to do it for all
of them or they’ll be excluded from the markets.
PT: You mean they’ll have to do it for the Russian
PT: The Chinese government?
ES: Precisely. If we say we’ll build a backdoor for
the United Kingdom to be able to search for terrorists, the Chinese will
immediately come forward and say, if you want to sell your product in China,
you have to provide us with the same capability.
PT: General Michael Hayden, who is not one of your
biggest fans, says this is the most serious haemorrhaging of American secrets
in the history of American espionage and it’s set back US intelligence
capabilities by years, if not decades. Aren’t you a traitor?
ES: Michael Hayden is the man who first authorised the
wireless tapping of everyone in the United States, which continued for a period
of more than ten years, until it was revealed by me, which ended the programme
and restored a level of constitutional protection of everyone in the United
States. Now the question here is, who does Michael Hayden serve? I didn’t sell
information and I didn’t benefit from this in any way. Most people would say,
you know, living in exile is a big loss.
PT: Michael Hayden would say that his job, his role,
is to protect the American people, to protect them from harm, and what he’s
saying is what you have done is the opposite, that your revelations have
seriously damaged the American people.
Are you a traitor?
ES: Of course not. The question is, if I was a
traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to American journalists
and free society generally. Who is the government working for? Are they working
for the people or are they working against us?
PT: With regard to your future, the former US Attorney
General, Eric Holder, has said that now, “a possibility exists for the Justice
Department to cut a deal”. Is that under consideration? Is that a possibility?
ES: We have seen a big change since 2013 when the
government denounced me in the harshest terms, that I had blood on my hands. We
don’t hear that any more and as a result I am increasingly optimistic that the
government will reconsider the wisdom of charging whistle-blowers in the same
way they charge spies.
PT: But thinking of your future, would you be prepared
to do some kind of deal, some kind of plea bargain?
ES: Of course, I’ve volunteered to go to prison with
the government many times. What I won’t do is I won’t serve as a deterrent to
people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.
PT: But you would be prepared to face a jail sentence,
ES: Of course.
PT: Isn’t it ironic that you, a defender of freedom,
of civil liberties, are here enjoying, perhaps enjoying isn’t the word, but
you’re here as a result of the hospitality of Russia whose record on human and
civil rights, and liberties and privacy, won’t really withstand scrutiny?
ES: I applied for asylum in 21 different countries, so
all throughout western Europe and other parts of the world, and all of them
tried to avoid giving an answer, because they didn’t want to risk either
alienating their public, by punishing people who are working to protect human
rights, or to alienate the United States government by taking a public side
But I’ve made it clear, that I’m always willing to
I would return home tomorrow as long as the government
was prepared to be reasonable in protecting the interests of our rights in
PT: And how would you describe the government’s
reasonableness in this case, what will you be looking to, from them, for you to
ES: Well so far they’ve said they won’t torture me, which
is a start, I think. But we haven’t gotten much further than that.
PT: But it’s something you, your lawyers are actively
discussing with the government I assume?
ES: We’re still waiting for them to call us back.
PT: How are you managing in Russia, I mean, where’s
your money coming from? You’ve got to live, you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to clothe
yourself. Where’s the money coming from?
ES: I’ve been extremely fortunate. I made an
extraordinary amount of money for someone with my qualifications before I left
and I took everything that I had with me on my back.
PT: How do you access that money?
ES: Well it was in cash, but since then…
PT: How much did you bring out with you?
ES: Well I can’t say that because it would probably
violate some customs declaration.
PT: People seeing what you say and listening to what
you say, here in Russia, will say now wait a minute, here he is, enjoying the
hospitality of Russia, of Vladimir Putin, he must have done a deal; there must
be a quid pro quo, the FSB wouldn’t
simply let you stay here without drilling you about what you’ve done, your
secrets. Have you done a deal with the FSB?
ES: Of course not. I burned my life to the ground to
work against surveillance. Why would I suddenly turn around just because I’m in
a different geographical location and say, yes, now I’m all about surveillance,
that’s what I’d like to do from now on. It doesn’t make sense.
PT: But one assumes that the Russians, the FSB, would
want to find out all that they could from you about what you did and how you did
it, but you know, you are a golden catch, a golden asset on their doorstep.
PT: For the next two years.
ES: That’s all public already. Everything, you know,
I, I worked for, everything that I knew has already been revealed, it’s in the
hands of journalists. I have no further value.
PT: Has the Russian intelligence service, the FSB,
talked to you?
ES: Of course, when I was in the airport, I brought no
information with me from Hong Kong. That was left with journalists, precisely
because I knew that I would be transiting areas where I wouldn’t be able to
control my person, my effects. So the only way to protect this information was
to not have it at all.
PT: If I gave you my computer, given your capabilities
at a computer, couldn’t you access the data that you once had but no longer
have? Isn’t it there?
ES: No, no.
PT: On your own personal iCloud?
ES: No, no, no, so this, this information that was
provided to journalists, it’s stored offline, what we call air-gap systems. They
have no connections to the internet or anything like that, precisely to protect
them against this kind of offensive cyber-operation and so forth, so no, I
mean, there’s nothing that can be done about that.
The only way to protect yourself against that kind of
coercion or subversion, is to simply not know the answers at all.
I know how to keep a secret safe and I also know when
the public needs to know it. The longer you wait with programmes like
this, the more deeply entrenched they become and the more difficult they are to
PT: When you look at all that has happened and when
you look at your future which will probably entail a period, perhaps a very
long period in jail, would you do the same again? Do you have any regrets about
what you’ve done?
ES: I regret that I didn’t come forward sooner,
because the longer you wait with programmes like this, the more deeply
entrenched they become and the more difficult they are to reform. You have to
stop them early and you have to stop them fast. I have paid a price but I’m
comfortable with that and I have to say, I sleep more soundly now than I ever
PT: I would have thought you might wake up at night
thinking, what on earth is going to happen to me?
ES: The best part about being sort of a, you know,
marked man, is that you no longer have to think about tomorrow. Instead you
just live for today.
ES: I hope not but, at this point, I feel comfortable
with the decisions I’ve made. If I’m gone tomorrow, I’m happy with what I had,
I feel blessed.
“How to maintain a balance between security and freedom in a democratic society under threat? Can democracies resist the escalation of fear and formulate responses based on
civic responsibility and active citizenship? Can they deal effectively with security risks linked to the digital revolution without jeopardising individual rights and freedoms, the benefits of the digital revolution and democratic institutions?” openDemocracy will be examining these questions in partnership with the 2015 World Forum for Democracy during the next six months, starting with a Guest Week series on the openDemocracy homepage from 26th October 2015.