Edward Snowden TED2014: Here’s How We Take Back The Internet (Transcript)

Appearing by telepresence robot, Edward Snowden speaks at TED2014 about surveillance and Internet freedom. The right to data privacy, he suggests, is not a partisan issue, but requires a fundamental rethink of the role of the internet in our lives — and the laws that protect it. “Your rights matter,” he say, “because you never know when you’re going to need them.” Chris Anderson interviews, with special guest Tim Berners-Lee

Speaker bio here






Chris Anderson: The rights of citizens, the future of the Internet. So I would like to welcome to the TED stage the man behind those revelations, Ed Snowden.

Ed is in a remote location somewhere in Russia controlling this bot from his laptop, so he can see what the bot can see. Ed, welcome to the TED stage. What can you see, as a matter of fact?

Edward Snowden: Ha, I can see everyone. This is amazing.

Chris Anderson: Ed, some questions for you. You’ve been called many things in the last few months. You’ve been called a whistleblower, a traitor, a hero. What words would you describe yourself with?

Edward Snowden: You know, everybody who is involved with this debate has been struggling over me and my personality and how to describe me. But when I think about it, this isn’t the question that we should be struggling with.

Who I am really doesn’t matter at all. If I’m the worst person in the world, you can hate me and move on. What really matters here are the issues. What really matters here is the kind of government we want, the kind of Internet we want, the kind of relationship between people and societies. And that’s what I’m hoping the debate will move towards, and we’ve seen that increasing over time. If I had to describe myself, I wouldn’t use words like “hero.” I wouldn’t use “patriot,” and I wouldn’t use “traitor.” I’d say I’m an American and I’m a citizen, just like everyone else.

Chris Anderson: So just to give some context for those who don’t know the whole story — this time a year ago, you were stationed in Hawaii working as a consultant to the NSA. As a sysadmin, you had access to their systems, and you began revealing certain classified documents to some handpicked journalists leading the way to June’s revelations. Now, what propelled you to do this?

Edward Snowden: You know, when I was sitting in Hawaii, and the years before, when I was working in the intelligence community, I saw a lot of things that had disturbed me. We do a lot of good things in the intelligence community, things that need to be done, and things that help everyone. But there are also things that go too far. There are things that shouldn’t be done, and decisions that were being made in secret without the public’s awareness, without the public’s consent, and without even our representatives in government having knowledge of these programs.

When I really came to struggle with these issues, I thought to myself, how can I do this in the most responsible way, that maximizes the public benefit while minimizing the risks? And out of all the solutions that I could come up with, out of going to Congress, when there were no laws, there were no legal protections for a private employee, a contractor in intelligence like myself, there was a risk that I would be buried along with the information and the public would never find out.

But the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees us a free press for a reason, and that’s to enable an adversarial press, to challenge the government, but also to work together with the government, to have a dialogue and debate about how we can inform the public about matters of vital importance without putting our national security at risk. And by working with journalists, by giving all of my information back to the American people, rather than trusting myself to make the decisions about publication, we’ve had a robust debate with a deep investment by the government that I think has resulted in a benefit for everyone. And the risks that have been threatened, the risks that have been played up by the government have never materialized. We’ve never seen any evidence of even a single instance of specific harm, and because of that, I’m comfortable with the decisions that I made.

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Chris Anderson: So let me show the audience a couple of examples of what you revealed. If we could have a slide up, and Ed, I don’t know whether you can see, the slides are here. This is a slide of the PRISM program, and maybe you could tell the audience what that was that was revealed.

Edward Snowden: The best way to understand PRISM, because there’s been a little bit of controversy, is to first talk about what PRISM isn’t. Much of the debate in the U.S. has been about metadata. They’ve said it’s just metadata, it’s just metadata, and they’re talking about a specific legal authority called Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That allows sort of a warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance of the entire country’s phone records, things like that — who you’re talking to, when you’re talking to them, where you traveled. These are all metadata events.

PRISM is about content. It’s a program through which the government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America to do its dirty work for the NSA. And even though some of these companies did resist, even though some of them — I believe Yahoo! was one of them — challenged them in court, they all lost, because it was never tried by an open court. They were only tried by a secret court. And something that we’ve seen, something about the PRISM program that’s very concerning to me is, there’s been a talking point in the U.S. government where they’ve said 15 federal judges have reviewed these programs and found them to be lawful, but what they don’t tell you is those are secret judges in a secret court based on secret interpretations of law that’s considered 34,000 warrant requests over 33 years, and in 33 years only rejected 11 government requests. These aren’t the people that we want deciding what the role of corporate America in a free and open Internet should be.

Chris Anderson: Now, this slide that we’re showing here shows the dates in which different technology companies, Internet companies, are alleged to have joined the program, and where data collection began from them. Now, they have denied collaborating with the NSA. How was that data collected by the NSA?

Edward Snowden: Right. So the NSA’s own slides refer to it as direct access. What that means to an actual NSA analyst, someone like me who was working as an intelligence analyst targeting, Chinese cyber-hackers, things like that, in Hawaii, is the provenance of that data is directly from their servers. It doesn’t mean that there’s a group of company representatives sitting in a smoky room with the NSA palling around and making back-room deals about how they’re going to give this stuff away.

Now each company handles it different ways. Some are responsible. Some are somewhat less responsible. But the bottom line is, when we talk about how this information is given, it’s coming from the companies themselves. It’s not stolen from the lines. But there’s an important thing to remember here: even though companies pushed back, even though companies demanded, hey, let’s do this through a warrant process, let’s do this where we actually have some sort of legal review, some sort of basis for handing over these users’ data, we saw stories in the Washington Post last year that weren’t as well reported as the PRISM story that said the NSA broke in to the data center communications between Google to itself and Yahoo to itself.

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So even these companies that are cooperating in at least a compelled but hopefully lawful manner with the NSA, the NSA isn’t satisfied with that, and because of that, we need our companies to work very hard to guarantee that they’re going to represent the interests of the user, and also advocate for the rights of the users. And I think over the last year, we’ve seen the companies that are named on the PRISM slides take great strides to do that, and I encourage them to continue.

Chris Anderson: What more should they do?

Edward Snowden: The biggest thing that an Internet company in America can do today, right now, without consulting with lawyers, to protect the rights of users worldwide, is to enable SSL web encryption on every page you visit. The reason this matters is today, if you go to look at a copy of “1984” on Amazon.com, the NSA can see a record of that, the Russian intelligence service can see a record of that, the Chinese service can see a record of that, the French service, the German service, the services of Andorra. They can all see it because it’s unencrypted. The world’s library is Amazon.com, but not only do they not support encryption by default, you cannot choose to use encryption when browsing through books. This is something that we need to change, not just for Amazon, I don’t mean to single them out, but they’re a great example. All companies need to move to an encrypted browsing habit by default for all users who haven’t taken any action or picked any special methods on their own. That’ll increase the privacy and the rights that people enjoy worldwide.

Chris Anderson: Ed, come with me to this part of the stage. I want to show you the next slide here. This is a program called Boundless Informant. What is that?

Edward Snowden: So, I’ve got to give credit to the NSA for using appropriate names on this. This is one of my favorite NSA cryptonyms. Boundless Informant is a program that the NSA hid from Congress. The NSA was previously asked by Congress, was there any ability that they had to even give a rough ballpark estimate of the amount of American communications that were being intercepted. They said no. They said, we don’t track those stats, and we can’t track those stats. We can’t tell you how many communications we’re intercepting around the world, because to tell you that would be to invade your privacy.

Now, I really appreciate that sentiment from them, but the reality, when you look at this slide is, not only do they have the capability, the capability already exists. It’s already in place. The NSA has its own internal data format that tracks both ends of a communication, and if it says, this communication came from America, they can tell Congress how many of those communications they have today, right now. And what Boundless Informant tells us is more communications are being intercepted in America about Americans than there are in Russia about Russians. I’m not sure that’s what an intelligence agency should be aiming for.

Chris Anderson: Ed, there was a story broken in the Washington Post, again from your data. The headline says, “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year.” Tell us about that.

Edward Snowden: We also heard in Congressional testimony last year, it was an amazing thing for someone like me who came from the NSA and who’s seen the actual internal documents, knows what’s in them, to see officials testifying under oath that there had been no abuses, that there had been no violations of the NSA’s rules, when we knew this story was coming.