Home » Glenn Greenwald on Why Privacy Matters (Transcript)

Glenn Greenwald on Why Privacy Matters (Transcript)

The other really destructive and, I think, even more insidious lesson that comes from accepting this mindset is there’s an implicit bargain that people who accept this mindset have accepted, and that bargain is this: If you’re willing to render yourself sufficiently harmless, sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then and only then can you be free of the dangers of surveillance. It’s only those who are dissidents, who challenge power, who have something to worry about.

There are all kinds of reasons why we should want to avoid that lesson as well. You may be a person who, right now, doesn’t want to engage in that behavior, but at some point in the future you might. Even if you’re somebody who decides that you never want to, the fact that there are other people who are willing to and able to resist and be adversarial to those in power — dissidents and journalists and activists and a whole range of others — is something that brings us all collective good that we should want to preserve.

Equally critical is that the measure of how free a society is is not how it treats its good, obedient, compliant citizens, but how it treats its dissidents and those who resist orthodoxy.

But the most important reason is that a system of mass surveillance suppresses our own freedom in all sorts of ways. It renders off-limits all kinds of behavioral choices without our even knowing that it’s happened.

The renowned socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg once said, “He who does not move does not notice his chains.” We can try and render the chains of mass surveillance invisible or undetectable, but the constraints that it imposes on us do not become any less potent.

Thank you very much.

Question-and-answer Session

Bruno Giussani: Glenn, thank you. The case is rather convincing, I have to say, but I want to bring you back to the last 16 months and to Edward Snowden for a few questions, if you don’t mind. The first one is personal to you. We have all read about the arrest of your partner, David Miranda in London, and other difficulties, but I assume that in terms of personal engagement and risk, that the pressure on you is not that easy to take on the biggest surveillance organizations in the world. Tell us a little bit about that.

Glenn Greenwald: You know, I think one of the things that happens is that people’s courage in this regard gets contagious, and so although I and the other journalists with whom I was working were certainly aware of the risk — the United States continues to be the most powerful country in the world and doesn’t appreciate it when you disclose thousands of their secrets on the Internet at will — seeing somebody who is a 29-year-old ordinary person who grew up in a very ordinary environment exercise the degree of principled courage that Edward Snowden risked, knowing that he was going to go to prison for the rest of his life or that his life would unravel, inspired me and inspired other journalists and inspired, I think, people around the world, including future whistleblowers, to realize that they can engage in that kind of behavior as well.

Bruno Giussani: I’m curious about your relationship with Ed Snowden, because you have spoken with him a lot, and you certainly continue doing so, but in your book, you never call him Edward, nor Ed, you say “Snowden.” How come?

Glenn Greenwald: You know, I’m sure that’s something for a team of psychologists to examine. I don’t really know. The reason I think that, one of the important objectives that he actually had, one of his, I think, most important tactics, was that he knew that one of the ways to distract attention from the substance of the revelations would be to try and personalize the focus on him, and for that reason, he stayed out of the media. He tried not to ever have his personal life subject to examination, and so I think calling him Snowden is a way of just identifying him as this important historical actor rather than trying to personalize him in a way that might distract attention from the substance.

Bruno Giussani: So his revelations, your analysis, the work of other journalists, have really developed the debate, and many governments, for example, have reacted, including in Brazil, with projects and programs to reshape a little bit the design of the Internet, etc. There are a lot of things going on in that sense. But I’m wondering, for you personally, what is the endgame? At what point will you think, well, actually, we’ve succeeded in moving the dial?

Glenn Greenwald: Well, I mean, the endgame for me as a journalist is very simple, which is to make sure that every single document that’s newsworthy and that ought to be disclosed ends up being disclosed, and that secrets that should never have been kept in the first place end up uncovered. To me, that’s the essence of journalism and that’s what I’m committed to doing.

As somebody who finds mass surveillance odious for all the reasons I just talked about and a lot more, I mean, I look at this as work that will never end until governments around the world are no longer able to subject entire populations to monitoring and surveillance unless they convince some court or some entity that the person they’ve targeted has actually done something wrong. To me, that’s the way that privacy can be rejuvenated.

Bruno Giussani: So Snowden is very, as we’ve seen at TED, is very articulate in presenting and portraying himself as a defender of democratic values and democratic principles. But then, many people really find it difficult to believe that those are his only motivations. They find it difficult to believe that there was no money involved, that he didn’t sell some of those secrets, even to China and to Russia, which are clearly not the best friends of the United States right now. And I’m sure many people in the room are wondering the same question. Do you consider it possible there is that part of Snowden we’ve not seen yet?

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