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In 2013 Edward Snowden exposed a system of mass global surveillance. Six years later, he says not much has changed and will not change until the internet is restructured. In a live interview over a video link, Edward Snowdens shared his views with 70 000 Web Summit attendees listening in Lisbon’s Altice Arena last week.

“The law is not the only thing that can protect you. Technology is not the only thing that can protect you. We are the only thing that can protect us and the only way to protect anyone is to protect everyone,” Said Snowden who recently published his memoir, resulting in CIA and NSA trying to sue him to stop the publication.

Six Years ago, Snowden risked everything to expose the mass surveillance of global scale which had been going on for years. “I’m a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk. For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friends you keep, sites you visit and subject lines you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not,” wrote “Citizen Four” in his first contact with journalists. “In the end, if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. I ask that you only ensure this information makes it home to the American public,” Later he provided journalists with hundreds of pages of documents and has since been living in exile. 

Speaking to Journalist James Ball who was interviewing him for the Web Summit, Snowden reiterated his reasons to speak out: “On the first day you work at the CIA, you have to take what they call an oath of service. It’s a very solemn vow in a dark room, with flags all over the place, with everybody else that’s entering government service on the same day. And here you have to swear an oath to support and defend not the agency, not a secret, not even a president, but the Constitution of your country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and many years later, you find that what you are doing, what everyone at your agency is doing is a gigantic conspiracy to violate precisely that oath you took on the very first day. This is what I struggled with for many years and eventually drove me forward. What do you do when you have contradicting obligations? To what do we owe our greater loyalty?”

To answer the question about what his primary message was, Snowden said that what drove him forward in the first place was the observation that information about everyone - even those who had done nothing wrong and were not suspected of anything- was being collected, just in case it would be useful. “And nobody in a position of power tried to stop it, because it benefited them.”

To the question, if the world has moved forward or backwards in these six years, Snowden answered that even though awareness is rising, people are often mad at the right people for the wrong reasons. “When you look at Google, Amazon or Facebook, their business model - every bit of it - they argue is legal. And whether we’re talking about Facebook or the NSA, that’s the real problem that we have legalised, the abuse of the person through the personal. We have entrenched a system that makes the population vulnerable for the benefit of the privileged.”

When Snowden was asked about PRISM, where tech giants provided the NSA with information on the public, Snowden said he believed that the tech companies had gone beyond the law voluntarily to do the government a favour, because they believed that that government was a positive force in the world. They simply created “systems of information sharing” as they called it and deputised the companies to turn over perfect records of private lives on-demand to institutions which were no longer meaningfully accountable to the public at large.

As for the GDPR, Snowden does not believe that it is the right solution: “I think the mistake that it makes is actually in the name: The General Data Protection Regulation misplaces the problem. The problem isn’t data protection. The problem is data collection. Regulating the protection of data presumes that the collection of data in the first place was proper that it was appropriate that it doesn’t represent a threat or a danger that it’s okay to spy on everybody all the time whether they’re your customers or whether they’re your citizens, so long as it never leaks. And I would say not only is that incorrect but if we learned anything from 2013, it’s that eventually everything leaks. It’s a bad strategy.

Snowden went on to say that GDPR was not enough to tackle the enormous problem of tech giants invading peoples privacy. “What I’m saying is that it’s not a solution because even though the GDPR does propose I believe, 4% of global revenue fines for internet giants; today those fines don’t exist. Until we see those fines being applied every single year to the internet giants, until they reformed their behaviour and began complying not just with the letter but the spirit of the law, it (GDPR) is a paper tiger. All of the data that’s being collected today is about people. It is not data that is being exploited; it is people that are being exploited is not data and networks that are being influenced and manipulated. It is you, that is being manipulated.”

Snowden praised the developments in and the increased use of encryption on the internet, but at the same time warned about governments using coercion to keep the possibilities of mass surveillance open. “We’ve seen an increase in coercion, where companies, such as telecommunications service providers, primarily big bulk carriers, Silicon Valley companies and the internet giants, are largely deputised by states when they can’t get a voluntary relationship. We’ve seen the letter written from the US Attorney General, a UK minister and Australian minister, all together to Facebook to request that they abstain from protecting the communications of their users, and intentionally designing their products and services to be less safe for their users in order to make surveillance easier for governments,” said Snowden. 

As for the voluntary cooperation of large companies with governments and mass abuse of users data Snowden said: “When you use Facebook, you are not their customer, you are their product. And it is, unfortunately, a lot of ways true of Amazon’s internet services as well. Amazon runs half the internet and people aren’t really aware of it. And we know they have incredibly intimate relationships with the United States government, particularly the intelligence community because they built the CIA’s data centre which they continue to operate today.”

In another panel of web summit, US congressman Ro Khana and Tony Blair, among other issues discussed the threat of China and Chinese technology. Khana, who represents the Silicon Valley in the US Congress and is a member of the democratic party also expressed his strong concern about Huawei becoming a network in the United States or Europe and that we should make sure that 5G technology is lead by American or Western companies. “There is too much at stake in allowing Chinese espionage or monitoring of data to take a risk in letting China dominate the 5G network,” said Khana in a press conference in Web Summit. We put the question to him, that after what Snowden had revealed about American tech companies’ cooperating with NSA to spy on people globally and en-mass, why should the world trust American companies more than Chinese ones?

In response, Khana mentioned that there had been debate and legislation in the congress and tech community that mass surveillance of American citizens should not be done. Still, he continued with comparing the Chinese and American system saying: “I am perfectly happy to have the conversation bout weather United States system of government is better or China’s. Most people in the world still rather come to the United States than go to China, so our system of governance based on freedom, liberal democracy, multiculturalism can be a beacon to the world.”

“But if you are a better system, that doesn’t mean people are happy for you spying on them, so has anything been done since Snowden’s revelations,” asked Helsinki Times.

We have significant amount of legislation in Congress and in the executive branch that mass surveillance of American citizens should not be done, and we shouldn’t be engaged in surveillance of foreign leaders, but you have to ask the Trump administration to see if those programs have been discontinued or not as my party is not in power right now.”

However, the mass surveillance Snowden revealed had happened all along during the reign of the Democratic party and Obama era. Sadly, responses expose the mindset that other than “American Citizens” are a free game, when it comes to legislations binding tech companies and US government agencies practising mass surveillance globally. 

 

Alexis Kouros - HT