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
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Edward Snowden_ Here’s how we take back the Internet
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.
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.