Two weeks ago, the Guardian published PowerPoint slides detailing a previously unknown, sweeping surveillance program by the National Security Administration. Shortly thereafter, the source of those leaks revealed himself to be Edward Snowden, a former security contractor now seeking asylum in Hong Kong. Yesterday he held an online question-and-answer session at the Guardian. Here are the six most important things we learned:
1. The NSA stores people’s calls.
A leak revealed that the NSA had collected three months of phone records on all Verizon customers. Early analysis focused on the role of metadata, like when the call was and to what number, thinking that warrants protected the actual voice content of a call from being read. Snowden disagreed:
Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications.
Snowden was straightforward about NSA spying on the voice content of phone calls, which are stored automatically and accessed with warrants passed by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, which Snowden called a rubber stamp.
2. The extent of the NSA’s access to tech company information is still unclear.
PRISM is a program that involves the NSA having access to information stored by nine major American internet technology companies. The most contested part of that program was a claim about the NSA having “direct access” to tech company servers, which most organizations named in the program have explicitly denied. According to Snowden:
The reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on – it’s all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time.
SIGINT is short for signals intelligence, which just means electronic communication. By this account, phone and email communications are stored and accessed by government agencies when needed. Left unanswered is how or where this information is stored; the best theory so far involves tech companies uploading raw data to specific NSA servers when asked. Snowden promised further revelations were forthcoming.
NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah
3. Snowden sought refuge in Hong Kong deliberately.
Fearing persecution and treatment similar to that of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, he chose to flee the United States. Why Hong Kong and not popular bastion of freedom Iceland?
Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration.
4. Snowden is confused by where cyberespionage starts and cyberwar begins.
Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people.
This is a confusing division! Snowden is attempting to describe cyberwar, but cyberwar is such a weird vague term that what he’s actually describing here is mostly just espionage. The NSA is trying to track how people are connected, for reasons of national security, without the consent of foreign governments. That’s sketchy, but that’s because it is spy work, and all spy work is sketchy. Nations never feel the need to declare war before they start spying, and the U.S. has only ever declared war five times, which makes it a bad metric.
Snowden also objects to cyberattacks against civilian institutions, universities, and private businesses. It’s worth noting that Snowden himself was working as a civilian in private business doing work for government on a contract. The lines between government, business, and private blur when it comes to online security. As cyber becomes a bigger part of the future, it’s important to understand how the rules and norms of war will change. A great place to start is NATO’s Tallinn Manual, a non-binding statement by legal experts on how the laws of war apply in cyberspace.
5. Snowden is disappointed in the TMZ-style coverage of him, instead of a larger conversation about the leak.
Stories that have focused on Snowden’s girlfriend, his 19-year-old online profile, and a modeling photoshoot all detract from what was supposed to be a national debate about sweeping government surveillance powers. This is true! But the public’s ability to put a face and a personality to the source of the leaks is perhaps what has made this already-compelling story that much more powerful.
6. Snowden thinks that “being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American.”
He’s also disappointed in Obama, noting:
Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.