Then he added, and this is the killer line, “You should feel flattered the PM thinks you are important.” So that was the British Government’s response to this sensational story. We continued publishing, I was in a kind of secret bunker. What we tried to do was what Snowden had told us to do, which was to publish stories about the mass surveillance of civilians, of high public importance. Not about operational matters, terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on.
But this brought us into a deep conflict with the British Government. And eventually we were told unless you smash your computers up, we will close you down. And two middle-age spies from GCHQ, that’s the British equivalent of the NSA, came to The Guardian on a quiet Saturday morning, and we symbolically agreed to destroy our hard drives, which you saw there. It was a surreal episode, they told us to buy drills and face masks. They produced something which looked like a small microwave oven called degausser, which destroys magnetic data.
We said, “We’re not going to use your degausser, we don’t trust you.” And they said, “Yes, you will. It costs 30 000 pounds.” And we said, “OK, we’ll use your degausser.” So we smashed the stuff up and that was the end of the Snowden files.
I think, I write in my book I describe it as part Stassi, part pantomime. But I think for people who care about press freedom, it was very chilling. The extraordinary thing was that the two spies had spent two weeks staking out our building and they left with presents from Hamleys, the London toy store for their children, back to the provinces, where the spy agencies headquartered. I subsequently talked to one of the spies, Ian, about this. And he said he wasn’t so upset about the book, but he was upset about the implication that he was provincial. Provincialism being the worst kind of offense.
So what we know thanks to Snowden is a terrific amount, I mean I think Snowden has done us an enormous service. I think he’s a major historical figure. I think we all owe him a debt. I don’t know how many people have one of these; I guess everyone has one of these, right? The genius of Snowden was that he actually turned over documents, he didn’t merely assert. So now we know the iPhone is the most superlative spying device. The NSA boasts in its internal paper that people who have iPhones are zombies. So you are all zombies.
The NSA can remotely turn on your microphone. It’s actually happened to me. If they do that, then your battery goes down very quickly. It goes from full to zero in about 25 minutes. They collect your web searches, your text messages, your emails and also your geolocation data.
In other words, there’s a complete record of where you’ve been. If you go to your privacy settings, you can find out, it’s all being collected. So we’ve had an enormous debate over the last year. On the one hand, politically, not a huge amount has changed, there have been some minor reforms from the Obama Administration, I would say the British Government is still in denial. The Germans are furious, because Angela Merkel, whom we saw dressed as a Nazi earlier on, her phone was bugged by the NSA for 10 years.
For very understandable historical reasons, the Germans absolutely understand how important privacy is. But not much concrete political change, but I think we as citizens, at least we now can have a proper, meaningful debate with our governments, about the boundaries between privacy and national security. I’d be interested to know, for example, whether the NSA spied on the Greek Prime Minister or previous Greek Prime Ministers. Almost certainly the answer is yes. I’d be interested also to know how much the Greek government still collaborates with the NSA and is sharing your data with America.
But my message with this lovely audience is twofold: I’d say despite all of the Snowden revelations, stay cheerful, love each other. I ‘d suggest don’t be too scared. It’s also good to take steps to safeguard our data. Snowden’s great advice was if you have an iPhone, to put it in the fridge. I’ve also discovered a cocktail shaker is very good. I don’t know if it you have cocktail shakers here in Athens, but put it in the cocktail shaker, it works as a Faraday cage. And I’d say use encryption if you can. Encryption works and is terrific.
And just one final story. One of the reasons I care so much about the whole idea of privacy is that I spent 4 years in Russia, working for The Guardian as the Moscow Bureau Chief. And there I was hacked by the KGB. I had unpromising young men in black leather jackets following me around. Whenever I made a joke about Vladimir Putin on the telephone, someone was listening and the line will go “grgrgr.” Like this I had people breaking into my flat.
Really, it was kind of a badly written KGB drama. I’ve had experience of demonstrative Russian spying, but I’ve also had experience of American spying as well. After I saw Glenn Greenwald in Rio last year for my book, all sorts of weird stuff happens to everyone who met Glenn Greenwald. And I was writing my manuscript back in the English countryside. And I wrote something very disparaging about the NSA, very rude about the NSA. And I watched my computer as my paragraph was remotely deleted from right to left, kind of like that. And I just thought “What the f !” This went on for five or six times.