VIDEO & TRANSCRIPT: Edward Snowden speaks at Free State Project’s NH Liberty Forum 2016
Hero and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden recently gave an impassioned speech about privacy, human rights, and the restriction of government power at the 9th Annual NH Liberty Forum. More than 500 Liberty Forum attendees packed into several conference rooms at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, NH to watch Edward Snowden speak live via Google Hangouts from his political exile in Russia. The full transcript of Snowden’s talk—moderated by Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie—can be found below.
NH Liberty Forum is an annual conference put on by the Free State Project, a movement of 20,000+ pro-liberty activists relocating to New Hampshire, and exerting “the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of life, liberty, and property.” The FSP recently reached its goal of 20,000 signers, which officially “Triggered The Move,” making the Free State Project the most successful intentional migration movement in American history.
The Free State Project also hosts the Porcupine Freedom Festival (aka PorcFest) in June, a flagship annual summer gathering that attracts nearly 2,000 people to camp and enjoy liberty in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Transcript: Edward Snowden speaks at NH Liberty Forum
This video of Edward Snowden speaking at NH Liberty Forum was transcribed by Kimberly Grace for FSPmovers.com. Mr. Snowden’s words are presented here, uncut, to be spread as widely as possible. Please contact us if you are interested in providing translation services to help reach even more people around the world. If you wish to use any portion of this transcript for your own site, links back to this post are appreciated. Thank you.
[Incoming Free State Project president Matthew Philips]: “I’m going to turn it over to Nicholas Gillespie of ReasonTV who has also graciously agreed to act as interlocutor. Here you go, Nick.
[Nick Gillespie:] Can we show solidarity? Please can you put your mask up?
[standing ovation from crowd]
[Snowden:] Thank you.
[Gillespie:] So, to get right into it. I want to thank [Free State Project board members] Matt [Philips] and Carla [Gericke] in particular, but all of you for everything you’re doing with the Free State Project to create liberty in our lifetime. Edward Snowden, thank you so much for joining us. We’re talking from the Liberty Forum of the Free State Project which, in 2003, created a project where they said we’re going to get 20,000 people to agree to move to New Hampshire, and make the state a freer and more interesting, more innovative and fun place. Recently passed the 20,000 mark so the great migration has started. And at some point I’ve been asked to welcome you to come to New Hampshire, to a free state when you have time. And I’ve been told that, among other things, it will be a free and independent New Hampshire. They’re even getting rid of the state liquor stores and they’re not going to have extradition with the rest of the United States. So good job.
Let’s talk about a story that’s very much in the news now, the issue of Apple being requested by court order to unlock the cellphone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. You recently tweeted: “This is the most important tech case in a decade. Silence means that Google picked a side, but it’s not the public’s.”
Can you elaborate on that? Is Apple really on the public’s side? And how does strong encryption of personal communication, even when utilized by terrorist, strengthen freedom and liberty?
[Snowden:] Right, so this is an incredibly complex sort of topic. When you’re thinking about the whole Google/Apple thing, first off, Google did come forward. Their CEO made some comments in the sort of, the defense of the ability of private enterprise is not to be conscripted by government. To do software work at their direction rather than at the direction of their customers. Now, it was very tentative, but, hey, it’s a start. When you think about, sort of, Apple. Are they the big champions of liberty of individual rights? It’s not really about that. We’re not looking for the perfect heroes here, right? Don’t love the actor, love the act. And what we see is that what the FBI is asking for here, is in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, which are, of course, legitimate crimes… this is an act of terrorism as it’s been described. And they said, ‘Alright, we’ve got this private product out there that was designed to protect the security of all customers, not any particular individual customer but it’s a binary choice. Either all of us have security or none of us have security.’ And so the FBI went, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s great, but we want you to strip out some essential protections that you built into this program so that we can attack the program in a certain way.’
And as a technnologist, this is deeply disturbing to me because I know that we’ve had laboratory techniques since the 1990’s that allow us, I apologize, laboratory techniques since the 1990’s that allow the FBI—and other organizations that have incredible resources to unilaterally mount hardware attacks on security of these devices—to reengineer their software without compelling private actors, private enterprises, private individuals to work contrary to their will. Now, prior to this there were important core precedents that have equated code to speech; it’s an act of creation, an act of expression.
When you’re programming something—which is no different than sort of writing a paper or building a house—these are things that are guided by your intention. And if the government can show up at any time, at any house of any individual and say, ‘Regardless of your intention, regardless of your ideas, regardless of your plan, you don’t work for you, you work for us,’ that’s a radically different thing.
And whether it’s Apple or Google or anybody else, somebody else who at least challenges that assertion of authority and allows us to litigate that, both in the courts and in the public domain. This is critical because, prior to this moment, these things were being litigated in secret in front of a secret court of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that, in 33 years, was asked by the government 33,900 times to authorize surveillance or reinterpretations of statutory law that are more favorable to the government that we never knew about because all of these decisions are classified. In those 33,900 times in 33 years, the government got a no from this court only 11 times in 33 years. That’s why I think this is an important case.
[(05:45) Gillespie:] Can I ask a follow-up question? And part of this is legal, but part of it is also kind of technological. I mean, is any communication really secure anymore? You know, David Brin 20 years ago talked about “The Transparent Society.” Privacy is done. Get over it. And if no communication is really secure anymore, is it a problem or is there a way to actually hold the government accountable or to restrain it or corporations for that matter? Is this beyond a question of government acting and corporate acting and individual acting because certainly Brin was writing long before Facebook and social media where people are giving away just oodles of information again and again. Is any communication private anymore and if it isn’t then what next?
[Snowden:] So this is, again, a really complex question that we could talk for a lot longer than the time we have on. But the idea here is that there are different kinds of surveillance, right? There’s mass surveillance which is typically done of communications in transit, right? As they cross the internet over lines that you don’t own, which you don’t have a choice not to use because of the nature of the modern communications grid. You can’t say, I want my communications to only route through this network. Once they leave your home, once they leave your handset for your cellphone, or whatever device you’re using, it’s out of your control and it gets routed invisibly across borders, across systems, across enterprises. The danger of this is that any one of these actors, whether they’re corporate actors, whether they’re governments—and we know for a fact that governments particularly are abusing this sort of capability. As they transit, if they’re transmitting electronically naked—that is unencrypted—anybody can read these, they can capture these, they can store these, they can do whatever they want with them, and there’s no indication that it happened. So this is the property, of course, that spies like, whether they’re corporate or state.
[Gillespie:] It’s that people don’t even know that they’re being spied on.
[Snowden:] Right. Does this mean we should give up? Does this mean that there’s nothing that works? No. There are ways to shelter the content of the communication which is, basically, if you think about what’s in the e-mail, what’s in the order you registered with Amazon.com, or the call that you made on the voice-over-IP system, or the text message that you sent through a certain app, they can no longer read that. All they can see… what you’re doing is, those communications that were electronically naked, have now been closed. They’ve been armored in a kind of thing that means, you know, they can’t just kind of look under your skirt and see what’s happening there. All they can see is that now there’s a covered wagon sort of moving down the trail.
That cover allows you to have some measure of privacy, but there is still a danger here, which is they can monitor the movements of the wagons. And this is what the government refers to as metadata. How non-experts should think about it is “me data.” It’s data about you. They’re perfect records of private lives, in the activities sense.
They can’t see what you’re saying, but they can see who you’re saying it to, when you are saying it, with what frequency. Intelligence agencies use this information to derive what we call the pattern of life of individuals. And it’s very much the same as what a private eye would develop and create and store if they were following you around everyday. They can’t sit beside you at every cafe you go into because you’ll notice, ‘Hey, that’s the same guy that was there all the time’ or ‘Why is this guy leaning over my table and hearing my conversation?’, but they’ll be near enough to see who you’re meeting with, when you got there, what the license plate of your car was, when you left, where you traveled to, where you slept at night.
Now, this stuff is being done on a mass indiscriminate scale to all of us, even today after these reforms. The government stopped holding these repositories of data for a particular phone collection program who everybody in the country calls, but they said the phone companies can still hold this information and we’ll just ask them for it. But for the internet, they haven’t made any changes to those programs as a result. Now, when we talk about the direct factual challenges there, there are two points. One is armoring the in-transit communications: this is a principle called end-to-end encryption. Now the founding fathers of the United States used encryption to protect their communications. Benjamin Franklin created a number of enciphering systems himself because he recognized that when great power has intensely detailed private information about the political activities of groups that are acting in manners that they would find inconvenient or burdensome, it’s going to be a very short revolution, and we would have lost.
So they’ve sort of asserted means of defense. That is what is happening today for the internet as a standard. It’s not targeted against the United States government; it’s targeted against all actors who seek to subvert the intention of the users. We’re trying to protect everyone, everywhere, across borders. We’re not just fighting the NSA; this is about China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, whoever you’re afraid of, we can protect everyone from all of them by working together.
Now there is still that further measure of metadata, sort of “me data” again, the private activity records… where… how do we conceal the fact that a communication occurred as opposed to the details that occurred within it? And that’s still an area of active research. There are programs that are developed that do help with this, but this is still actively a topic of research.
[(11:53) Gillespie:] Like people like [NSA whistleblowers] William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Thomas Drake, you’re not against the government actually acting to ensure, to help the safety of citizens. Can you talk a little about what would a government’s surveillance program that is legal and effective look like for you? How would they play that out without inevitably… at some point, you talked about or you’ve written about how what the government can do—and what it should do or what it will do—are merging. There’s no sense of morality. But how do we put that kind of stopping point, where we have a government that can help protect us but not ultimately surveil us constantly?
[Snowden:] Well, the first point here is to recognize that the nature of open societies, free societies, nations at liberty, is that life does entail some measure of risk. You’re only going to be perfectly protected if you sort of bury yourself underground or you live in a prison. And then, you’ll still be at risk from the inmates who are sort of walking the asylum with you. Life involves risk. It involves choice. It involves contest. That’s where it derives its value from. That’s where we progress from. We are tested everyday by our environment. Now, that doesn’t meant we sort of open the vest and assume we should be vulnerable to any actor anywhere who wants to do us harm. No, of course, we should take reasonable measures and we should work to create capabilities and measures that allow us to identify wrongdoers and punish the wicked as things have always worked throughout human history.
Now, the method of law enforcement that we know works has been the model for thousands of years that has done so. And that is that we use a particularity requirement, which is really what the Fourth Amendment is about in legal terms. The idea is we don’t have a general warrant where the court says that anybody you think might be related to some class of activity, whether that’s political, or you want to call it radicalism, or anything like that, we just go, well, we think they’re like that, so we’re going to look at them. Instead, you need some probable cause that you can demonstrate to a court. This isn’t just a gut feeling. You have to lay out the evidence. If this individual is engaged in some kind of wrongdoing, if they are a criminal, and it meets a threshold that allows the court and the public sort of by proxy to go, ‘The interest in sort of limiting these rights for this particular period of investigation for the public outweighs that of the natural right that we all enjoy to be left alone without reasonable cause.’
Now, this is what has changed in the wake of 9/11, and particularly what 2013 revealed. If the government is targeting a particular device of an individual or they’re trying to tap a phone at an office that they know is involved in mob activity, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what we’ve always done. We’ve done this for hundreds of years. We have to have those methods of investigation. But at the same time, pre-criminal investigation that is watching all of us all the time because we might someday become interesting… right? They wanna go back in time and look at all the records they collected in advance—the government calls this bulk collection, everyone else calls it mass surveillance—and say, ‘Well, you know, you’ve come to our attention today, but we know what you did on June 5, 1992, and we don’t like that.’ That’s a problem because it radically reorders the balance of power in society.
It is preemptively restricting our rights without any cause to do so, to create a sort of surveillance time machine that allows them to go back and say, ‘No matter what you’ve done… we know what that was. We can analyze you, we can assess you.’ And why this matters is: it’s no longer justice, it’s only order… and these are very different things.
[(16:16) Gillespie:] Six years ago this month in 2010 in an Ars Technica forum under your unfortunate pseudonym, The True HOOHA, you asked, ‘Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop,’ and I’m quoting you, ‘or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?’
With what you were just talking about, how would you answer that question now? Are we frogs in a pot of water that’s getting warmer and warmer, or was there a switch that was turned on and that’s how this happened?
[Snowden:] So, first off, let me caveat as a privacy advocate, I’ve never publicly owned these posts. And this is not to say all of these aren’t me or anything like that. The individual in question who authored these posts seems to have a suspiciously large amount of correlating events in their life that match mine. The point here is that when individuals write under pseudonyms, there’s a reason for that. So individuals can be judged on the basis of their ideas, their engagement in a particular conversation, rather than their personalities. And this has been a concept that has moved for public discussion in the public commons, you know, not necessarily…
[Gillespie:] And certainly in American history… The Federalist Papers, we are a country that was founded on anonymous speech in many ways. So you, or whoever it was, was participating in a grand tradition.
[Snowden:] For the sake of argument, let’s presume that individual was me. The idea here is, could we have arrested this. At the time, contemporaneous to that, I think it was circa 2009, 2010, I was still working for the CIA, I had just moved to the NSA and I didn’t have the same kind of comprehensive insights as to how the system had arisen. And, of course, if I would have been in this position writing as this individual, the idea would be, well we should have seen this coming, right? It would have been incremental, there would have been some kind of indications. But when you look at the public record of how the institutions of mass surveillance occurred in the United States, they occurred under a veil of secrecy. And when officials were challenged by them, even under oath, even on camera, they lied about them and this is something important. If we sort of rewind to that post-2013 moment, there were stories published in 2006 revealing there was wiretapping… James Bamford in 2012, and when you look at statements in front of Congress, they looked a lot like this between Representative Hank Johnson and former director Keith Alexander of the NSA:
‘Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens’ e-mails?’ No.
‘Does the NSA intercept Americans’ cell phone conversations?’ No.
‘Google searches?’ No.
‘Text messages?’ No.
‘Amazon.com orders?’ No.
‘Bank records?’ No.
‘Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?’ No, sir.
‘It does not?’ Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.
So, this is sort of the challenge. Can we stop policies, can we arrest them, can we have a voice in them, can we have a vote on them if they’re intentionally and wittingly concealed from us?
[(20:40) Gillespie:] Talk about, how does the government - you know, by all indications if you look at Gallup or Pew or other surveys, trust and confidence in government to either be effective or to do the right thing, these are at or near historic lows. How does government win back the trust, because again, and you know I’m going to ask the libertarian question in a second, most of us are libertarians, not anarchists (baby crying in audience) and the anarchist is crying in the background there. But how does government gain back the trust and the confidence of the American people because we saw this in the 70s with the Church [Committee] Hearings and a general hollowing out of belief in government and, you know, we want a government that is smaller than it is perhaps but is effective and is legitimate. How does government win back the people’s trust?
[Snowden:] Accountability. I mean, the whole idea behind the divide and the simple language of a private citizen and a public official is that we know everything about them and they know nothing about us because they are invested with powers and privileges that we we don’t have. They have the ability to sort of direct the future of society and, as a result, it is incumbent upon them to assume a level of responsibility and accountability to the public for the exercise and abuse of those authorities. That simply does not exist today and that’s the problem. They know more about us than they ever have in the history of the United States and some would argue in any society that has existed before. At the same time that—thanks to aggressive expansions of the state secrecy authorities and the use of classification and so on and so forth, and even simple management of the press where they play leaking games and they don’t give comment on this, that, or the other… or more directly aggressive things like we just saw with the director of national intelligence, who is the most senior intelligence official in the United States.
They’re excusing themselves from accountability to us at the same time that they’re trying to exert greater power over us. And that, I think, leads to an inevitable result over time, whether for good intentions or bad, that the public is no longer a partner to government, but merely subject to it.
[(23:06) Gillespie:] You, clearly from you Twitter feed, you are following the Presidential nomination process in the United States. Answer this because this goes to that question of accountability. You’ve talked about how there’s really no difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, the two major parties on these issues. How does a country that offers up something like three dozen varieties of Pop-Tarts in every supermarket, how are we reduced to a non-choice in the political process and not just despair, but how do we change that so that there are voices that are saying that maybe surveillance state needs to be talked about more?
[Snowden:] I should caveat this with the fact that I’m an engineer, not a politician. So, my opinions being what they are, I look at systems in terms of incentives. Where are the incentives? And how does human behavior emerge in response to those incentives? We have approached what in game theory terms is called a nash equilibrium which is where you’ve got a limited set of choices that each player in the game can make and they’ve identified what is the most optimal move that they can make within the context of that game. So they play the same move every time hoping that in some rounds they’ll win even if, over time, it means they’ll lose because they’ll have the maximized score possible for the given set of constraints that exist.
Now what this means is that people go, ‘Well, I dislike this side, I dislike this individual, I dislike this tribe more than I dislike the other, therefore I’ll pick this one.’ So they start voting against. It’s important to have the principle of understanding, who I will vote for, but also who I won’t vote for. But we need to disentangle this from parties.
One of the reasons I haven’t endorsed anyone in the election is that I don’t believe there is anyone in the race that represents my values at the current time. Now, this isn’t to say this won’t develop, this won’t change, but it’s not about who you hate the most, right? It’s about who represents you. And not voting is also a powerful action, right? You’re revoking a mandate. Now this can’t work forever… it works in the tactical sense, but we need to think more broadly… back in the kind of Samuel Adams sense, that small groups of people that are politically passionate can, sort of, light brushfires of liberty in the minds of many.
[Gillespie:] That is, by the way, the ethos behind the Free State Project. Very much so yes. So can I ask, on a technical question, can you vote in the election? Where do you…can you send in an absentee ballot? If you do, will you make your vote public? It’s a secret ballot, but it would be kind of an interesting observation to see who you voted for.
[Snowden:] This is still a topic of active research.
[(26:28) Gillespie:] As I mentioned before, this is an overwhelmingly libertarian crowd and one of the things that libertarians talk about—besides reducing the size, scope, and spending of government and maximizing individual freedom—is recognizing that economic liberty and civil liberties are conjoined and inseparable. And some of the shots that you showed, people were saying like you know, ‘Are you tracking Amazon purchases? Are you tracking cell phones?’ And we see the surveillance covers economic activity as well as civil or personal communication. How do you define your politics or ideology and where did it come from? Do you consider yourself a libertarian or a classical liberal? Are these terms that are meaningful to you? Or how do you think about ideology I guess?
[Snowden:] Well, there’s a whole field of political theory that I don’t really subscribe to in terms of classifying people on the basis of their beliefs because what it’s trying to do is it’s trying to establish tribes. It’s trying to establish common identities. And while I do think that is valuable and important for the sense of collective action, for me, it’s not really the right fit.
I do see sort of a clear distinction between people who have a larger faith in liberties and rights than they do in states and institutions. And this would be sort of the authoritarian/libertarian axis in the traditional sense. And I do think it’s clear that if you believe in the progressive liberal tradition which is that people should have greater capability to act freely, to make their own choices, to enjoy a better and freer life over the progression of human evolution, you’re going to be pushing away from that authoritarian axis at all times because authoritarianism is necessarily about the ordering and control of society. Now, they can argue that that’ll produce a better quality of life but it cannot be argued that it will provide a freer life. And for me, I’m on the side of freedom.
[(28:37) Gillespie:] You have written in the past or said: ‘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.’ That’s coming out of a classical liberal tradition of the birth of American founding. You’re an autodidact in many ways. You know, you don’t have fancy degrees, and I don’t see diplomas on the wall behind you. Talk a little bit about the process of… how were you… how did you educate yourself and how does that play into larger roles of the types of education that governments or societies give people. Is it to liberate them? Is it to kind of subjugate them? And talk about where you came from in terms of your ideas and your self-learning.
[Snowden:] I don’t want to necessarily say that the modern educational system is intended to subjugate people, but we do know clearly that it’s overlaying a certain set of values upon everybody who’s engaged in that system. Now, those values don’t fit everyone. And one might say they’re not even appropriate values for a broad and diverse, sort of liberal body, particularly one which has to be able to cast votes in a self-informed, critically thinking way rather than one in which a majority of the education is: ‘This is the history of this party and that party.’ For me, yes, I did not graduate from high school. Instead, I got a GED, and I don’t have a formal education… and that’s held me back in a lot of ways in terms of just wanting to have some kind of formal education.
It’s difficult to go back again later on. Like chemistry, right? I’m really interested in chemistry but lacking the formal education, it’s just kind of a pain to go back and read the textbooks later on. At the same time, I have a very broad and diverse education on a number of different topics. This has helped me in my professional career because I was much more conversive and fluent on a number of topics that ended up being highly valued in the national security space that really aren’t taught in school, particularly when it comes to, sort of, systems security and anonymity online… in certain ways, how to combat that. This illustrates a key point which has been reflected by other thinkers before—it’s not original to myself—which is there is a very strong difference… a bright line difference… between your schooling and your education. And we should all be careful not to let the one influence the other.
[(31:31) Gillespie:] Talk about… I mean… because you were working with people and you’ve talked about this, who had similar backgrounds and technical skills, but then you brought a moral dimension to what you were seeing when you were working for the government as a subcontractor. Did your education, I mean… is it a moral education that was lacking in the people around you or was there something in the way that you learned that triggered that sense of saying, ‘You know what, we all know this is unconstitutional’ or ‘This is wrong.’ But it was you who decided to actually bring it to the public’s attention.
[Snowden:] Well, I represented a different generation in many ways than the majority of the institutional structures at the NSA and CIA because, of course, I was the new group in. But I was also sort of the first generation of children of the internet, right? When you think about where my biggest influences are in that context… my reading, my writing… while of course, yeah, we read the history, of course, yeah, we read the books, the traditions, and the classics as well… which classics do you get directed to? Which come to your attention? That becomes part of, sort of, the zeitgeist debate that occurs all around the world. You have a much larger mixing of perspectives and, because of that, nationalism is… blind nationalism is less effective in many ways because there is a very real difference between allegiance to country, allegiance to people, and allegiance to state, which is what nationalism today is really more about. The institution can come and go, but the people remain. And this kind of context is what differed.
I brought a Constitution in and put it on my desk because I had a personal interest in it, I thought it was relevant to the work. And there were a number of people that I worked with, coworkers and colleagues—particularly when I started raising the alarm internally about these programs saying, ‘Something doesn’t smell right here’—who agreed with me, who were interested, who had different interpretations… we challenged back and forth… but who cared. And then there were others who didn’t… who said the constitution doesn’t really matter… who would literally say, ‘You know, who cares about the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment and so on and so forth… the First Amendment. It doesn’t really matter. This is from hundreds of years ago, it’s no longer relevant and, look, we’ve got a job to do. There’s bad guys out there and we’re going to decide who they are and what we’re going to do about them.’
The problem with that, I would argue, is how designations of national security are made in the first place. There’s a real live case here that I think is relevant to a lot of people where the FBI had a lead on an individual. They were a religious leader, a community leader, that the government, the state, believed was in contact with or under the sway of sort of agents of foreign power. And this is common with all people who are involved in any kind of radical politics. If you challenge the prerogatives of the state, they presume it’s at the direction of of another state because that’s simply how their thinking works. The Attorney General was briefed on the case, they said, yeah, let’s wire tap this guy even though he’s a US citizen, somewhat popular cleric, fairly well-known, and they put him on a watch list. Said in the event of a national emergency, marshall law, FEMA, so on and so forth, we’re going to detain this person because they’re dangerous, they are a destabilizer, they are a radicalizer in the modern vernacular. And the FBI eventually made a determination that, of all the similar radicals in the United States, this individual was the most dangerous from the standpoint of national security. Does anybody in the room know this case? Do you recognize him?
And the determination was made two days after he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. That is what a threat to national security looks like. There’s a very real difference between the public interest and the national interest. When you hear national interest, when you hear national security, think state interest, think state security and you’ll be on the right track.
[(35:50) Gillespie:] Let me finish with three quick questions, if I might. First, in the case of Ross Ulbricht who was prosecuted for [allegedly] founding the Silk Road website and is now effectively appealing it, but has [two] life sentence[s]… do you assume or should we assume that the NSA was involved corroborating or gathering evidence which they might have denied in the actual trial?
[Gillespie:] OK. That was easy enough.
[Snowden:] Just to elaborate on that, I apologize, because I don’t mean to be pat there. But the NSA and the United States is a member of a larger group called the Five Eyes network. This is the United States, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. And these five countries, they sort of mix everything together in a common pot and they share and share alike. They’re not allowed to ask a partner to violate their laws, but partners can share information that would have been in violation of their laws if they didn’t ask for it.
Now, not to say that particular strategy applied in this context, but the difference between the National Security Agency’s authorities and particularly the British equivalent of the NSA called GCHQ, their authorities—is the UK is allowed to use NSA systems, right, that we built, that work in the United States and everything else, against or under the mandate of what’s called a serious crimes authority that’s completely unrelated to national intelligence prerogatives and this includes drug trafficking. They are literally mandated for this. They use our systems for this. And then the fruits of their investigations, they can share freely with us.
So, I would say, yes, of course, and it was foolish in the [Ross Ulbricht] court case… I understand why they did it… he didn’t want to own the server at the time. He didn’t want to say, ‘Yes, this is mine’ and therefore the judge wouldn’t allow him to make sort of a Fourth Amendment argument here that investigatory restrictions had been violated. But it seems unthinkable to me that there was not an intelligence angle, internationally, that was involved in that case.
[(38:08) Gillespie:] We’ve talked about ‘governments will do what they can do’… is there… with something like Silk Road, and you could throw in something like some of the activities of people like kim.com and whatnot… will governments at a certain point—when they realize that the minute that Silk Road was closed, other sites crept up that were dealing in larger numbers and more traffic—will they give up? And will they come up with a different way of either regulating or minimizing harm that might arise from this, or will they always be perpetually chasing after and kind of trying to—and I mean this in the broadest terms possible—always going after kind of nickel and dime dealers in activities that they don’t want or will they finally say, ‘We can’t really surveil everything, nor should we, and so we’ll come up with a different way of dealing with technological innovation in human commerce?’
[Snowden:] I’m not sure. Again, this is something that’s quite beyond my expertise. But I would say there are models in history to look at and draw from. Look at the prohibition on alcohol. Eventually, crime groups gained influence, they gained power, and they were difficult to combat as a result. Therefore, the government reevaluated the policy and found that it would be more in line with their interest—not the public interest, but their interests—if they ended that prohibition. And we see similar things happening with prohibition of marijuana today.
Now that’s not to say that I think there will be necessarily a global free-for-all, but technology is providing new needs to enforce human rights and traditional concepts of human interaction through technology rather than through law… across borders, regardless of jurisdictions, which allow people to communicate privately, associate privately, care about one another privately without… for example, in Russia, there are prohibitions on who and how you can love one another, as there were in the United States quite recently. And this kind of thing is being challenged in ways that I think will be difficult to subvert. Does this mean that sort of great powers are just going to throw their hands up and walk away? I think that’s unlikely.
However, the individual is more powerful today than they ever have been in the past. And this is why you see governments that feel threatened by an individual like Julian Assange who is trapped in an embassy because, despite the fact that they can control the physical location of someone, the power of the reliable, sort of old bag tools of political oppression are increasingly losing their weight.
[(41:01) Gillespie:] And the irony is not lost where you’re sitting in an authoritarian regime talking about how people are freer and more empowered than ever… so, I mean, that is an irony that I hope people will cogitate on for a long time. When we talked about the Presidential election, what would a candidate have to do in order for you to say, you know what, that is the type of thinking on surveillance—or on individual freedom and liberty from surveillance—that I can get behind? What would they have to do?
[Snowden:] I mean, again, this sort of political direction gets beyond my expertise, so I don’t like to talk too much about that, but you know, you brought up an interesting point there about Russia that I think is actually important to contextualize. There’s a lot of fair criticism, reasonable criticism, that’s like, ‘Hey, this guy is in Russia.’ It’s important to understand that I never intended to end up in Russia. Originally, I was hoping to get to Iceland. After that, Latin America when Iceland fell through. But the State Department cancelled my passport, trapping me in Russia when I was initially en route, as soon as they heard I was in the air. And despite the fact that I’ve asked several times, they’ve refused to reinstate it, which is quite interesting.
The United States of course criticizes me for being in Russia; at the same time, they won’t let me leave. But be that as it may, there’s a deeper point… a philosophical point here about hypocrisy. Is it hypocritical to be somewhere else and not be concerned, or as concerned, with that locality as you are with your own? And I would argue that it’s not. I owe my first duty, my first allegiance, my first loyalty, to fixing my country before I try to solve the problems of the rest of the world. We’ve got to get our house in order first.
That’s not to say that I haven’t criticized the policies of the Russian government which I think in many cases are clearly indefensible, particularly when it comes to how they reach into private lives, private homes in ways that are not OK in Russia, they’re not OK in the United States, they’re not OK anywhere. And this is something that I expect to continue, but the thing that I hope for the most, the thing that care about the most is: let’s set the standard in the United States that is has embodied traditionally. That is, we are the example for the rest of the world to emulate.
We don’t want people to hold us up as an example as in today and recently this week, in this Apple versus FBI case, where Apple, by the way, just yesterday had a call with the press where they said no country in the world has asked us to provide the authorities that the FBI is doing today. We don’t want Russia or China or North Korea or Iran or France or Germany or Brazil or any other country in the world to hold us up as an example for why we should be narrowing the boundaries of liberty around the world rather than expanding them.
[(44:22) Gillespie:] Sadly, that’s another way of saying you definitely won’t be voting in this election, I think. Final question and this goes to part of what the Free State Project is about, because it is a brushfire for freedom and for liberty and it’s 20,000 people and even already with less than 2,000 people having moved here, they’ve changed various types of laws and culture, which is as important of New Hampshire which was already a pretty free-wheeling place.
You talked about being a child of the internet. Many of us are parents. Our children should read the internet in its entirety, but what are the places, and… [laughter] no, it is true because it decentralizes knowledge and you come across the serendipity of all sorts of perspectives which is incredibly empowering and important… but how should children…. what are the texts that they should read, what are the practices that are good that would give them an independent, critical ability to kind of move into a world which is both nationalistic in a good sense—you’re an American and you seem to be still proud of still being an American and there’s something there worth preserving—so we can be nationalist but not statist? Where do we go on the internet? Where should we be asking our children to spend some time?
[Snowden:] I think it’s less important to go to specific texts as to demonstrate how specific texts are written. If I were a parent trying to help my child understand the internet, the key exercise that I would do is I would go look at cases that are super partisan today, extraordinarily charged, and I would get two radically different rewritings of the same story and I’d make them read both. And I’d do this on a number of different things to show… because this is something that a lot of older people fall prey to who aren’t so familiar with the internet and they just get their news from a single landing page portal or whatever. And also young people who get super filter bubbled because they opt-in to communities that create a groupthink where it’s always people who are agreeing with what they say… which was not available in the same way 20 years ago on the internet, 10 years ago on the internet. Where there weren’t walls quite so high separating communities. And the idea here is to show that the truth lies spread across the abundance of sources.
The beauty of the internet is that you no longer have to rely on a single source. You no longer are vulnerable to the broadcast that is: ‘This is the voice of truth, this is the voice of facts.’ But it’s important to understand that the sources that you prefer can still be wrong even if they’ve got the right principles, the right ideas, the right values. Getting the facts right matters more than anything else.
[(47:32) Gillespie:] You’re talking about the internet really as the fulfillment of the Enlightenment Project… of, kind of, competing versions of truth in a marketplace of ideas, and an understanding about the construction of knowledge and truth, rather than its self-evident presentation without argument following.
[silence] You can just nod. [laughter]
[(48:00) Gillespie:] For a final, final question. What would be the conditions under which you would voluntarily return to the United States? Are there concerns, or rather, are there terms that you would be happy for? And this is something again, not to harp on politics because all of us, I think, are living our lives as beyond politics, but that’s one of the things you hear: ‘Well, you should come back and have your day in court, etc.’ But what would be the conditions under which you might return?
[Snowden:] Right, so this is interesting. It’s actually evolved quite a bit. Originally, I volunteered myself for prison. But I said that I wouldn’t allow myself to be held up as a deterrent to other people who were trying to do the right thing. That was fundamentally contrary to what the government wanted to do. Of course, they wanted to sort of nail a scalp on the wall as a warning to the others. And even though I was quite flexible here, it was Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers—the secret classified history of the war in Vietnam in 1971—that showed the government had not only lied us into the war, but they kept lying to keep us in it, despite the fact that they knew there was no way to win. And he told me that this was a mistake and eventually convinced me of this in the sense of: to what do we owe our first loyalty? To law or to justice? And to submit ourselves to a government that is intentionally trying to deter the political beliefs and political acts of other people merely on the basis of law as though that were a substitute for morality—or superior to morality—is a very dangerous precedent to set.
Now, I’m still… I think most people might be surprised by this, but… fairly more trusting in the value of government institutions than Daniel Ellsberg who, since his initial work, he’s been an extraordinary crusader and a true radical in the best way for more than a generation now. But when it comes to what’s the current context, what’s the current state of play that we’ve been at…
I’ve told the government that I would return if they guarantee a fair trial where I can make a public interest defense of why this was done and allow the jury to decide if it was right or wrong in the context of both legality and morality and the United States government responded with a letter from the Attorney General saying they promised they would not torture me.
I’m not kidding. I have that letter. So it’s still kind of a work in progress, but we’ll see where it goes.
[Gillespie:] Well, thank you so very much for your time and, again, beaming from an incredibly, or a more free, Free State Project in New Hampshire. Thank you for your time and for your comments so much.
[Snowden:] Thank you so much. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you in New Hampshire.
This video of Edward Snowden speaking at NH Liberty Forum was transcribed by Kimberly Grace for FSPmovers.com. Mr. Snowden’s words are presented here, uncut, to be spread as widely as possible. Please contact us if you are interested in providing translation services to help reach even more people around the world. If you wish to use any portion of this transcript for your own site, links back to this post are appreciated. Thank you.