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Edward Snowden statement at Munk Debate on State Surveillance (transcript)

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Edward Snowden speaks via video at the Munk Debate on State Surveillance, May 2, 2014, in Toronto. A clip from this video was shown during the debate. This is the full video, with transcript below fold.


Edward Snowden: Hello, and thanks for inviting me to speak to you tonight. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in person.

State surveillance today is a euphemism for mass surveillance. The problem with this state surveillance is that it’s no longer based on the traditional practice of targeted taps based on some individual suspicion of wrongdoing. You know, you think this person’s a spy, you think that person’s a terrorist, you have some reason for watching them. Now, that traditional practice had natural limitations of the scale with which we could roll it out based on the burdensome implementations, the high cost of maintaining rolling out the task, the high risk of detection by targets if we used it too recklessly or too broadly. Now these limitations ensured that intrusive surveillance would only be used as a last resort, as a true necessity when there were no other less intrusive means of getting the same information that we wanted.

Today we’ve lost those limitations as a result of advances in technology. State surveillance today is now cheap, it’s undetectable, it’s pervasive, and it’s available at the click of a mouse. As a result, entire populations, rather than individuals, now live under constant surveillance, and this happens as a matter of convenience to the intelligence community rather than as a result of true necessity in preventing harm.

Now I’d like to point out that this is not an allegation. These are facts that you don’t have to take my word for. For example, the Washington Post confirmed that the NSA is now intercepting and recording every single phone call in entire countries. Now that’s both metadata, the data about who it’s from, the length of the call, information about associations, but also the voice content, the recording of what those people said on the call, and it’s stored for a full month even if these people are not suspected of any crime, any wrongdoing, or any problems at all.

So we have to ask ourself, is today’s state surveillance, is mass surveillance, is the monitoring of the private lives, of the hopes and dreams of every man, woman and child in these countries, a legitimate defense of our rights? And do we realize that these systems that we’re building, this technology that we’re developing, can be turned inwards at any time and in fact already has been, at least for the metadata portions, by people in the room, including Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA, who watched a program called Stellar Wind, a domestic surveillance program, an unconstitutional surveillance program, operating in the United States without any authorizing statute at all?

So this is a part of what today’s state surveillance looks like, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t stop with phone calls. It covers your e-mails, it covers your text messages, your web history, every Google search you’ve ever made and every plane ticket you’ve ever bought, the books you buy at that are, the transactions are sent in plain text where it’s unencrypted, and anyone, whether it’s, you know, the NSA or some other foreign intelligence service, can collect this and store it for increasing periods of time. It includes who your friends are and how you communicate with them. It shows where you go and what you want to be. It also shows people in charge of state surveillance who you love, and it shows them where these people live.

Now defenders of this kind of unconstitutional dragnet surveillance might say that there’s no room for abuse because we have policies in place to address these concerns. But can policies that change with every new president, with every new Congress, with every new director of the NSA, really address the threat of building inside our own country this kind of architecture of oppression? What about other countries that don’t abide by our policies? Is leaving our communications insecure so that the NSA can monitor them and those of our adversaries really worth the cost?

And we have to remember that policies aren’t perfect. Despite policy, I as an NSA analyst, sitting at my desk, had the technical authority to wiretap anyone from a federal judge to the president of the United States without getting out of my chair, as long as I had a private e-mail address, and that’s not a boast.

In fact, some of these cases have already happened. In 2009 the New York Times reported that an NSA analyst used our state surveillance infrastructure to improperly access Bill Clinton’s e-mail. And other NSA workers have used state surveillance to spy on their lovers, ex-girlfriends, and other individuals who are obviously not suspected of any crime at all or any kind of wrongdoing. It’s important to note that none of those individuals were ever charged with crimes, and we have to ask ourselves, why is that? Why is it when individuals who are working for the intelligence community, senior officials, when they break the law, when they mislead the American people, when they abuse this infrastructure, why are they not held to account? I believe it’s because in the calculus of state power, your rights are worth less to the government than the continued secrecy and operation of these programs, and court battles basically invite scrutiny that the government simply doesn’t want.

Now there are other far worse abuses that have yet to be reported. We need to understand that the NSA violates laws, regulations and policies thousands of times per year. And while our opponents might say that we can trust that the NSA’s massive collection of our private records can’t be abused, last year demonstrated that any Booz Allen contractor who doesn’t even work for the government can take those private records and walk out the door with them, and if they didn’t go to the press and return that information back to public hands, no one would ever know about it.

To conclude, I’d like to remind you that even if these state surveillance programs were perfect, even if they were never abused, and even if the oversight failures that are all too common today were fixed, these programs have never been shown to be uniquely valuable in keeping us safe. And again you don’t have to take my word for it. Two independent White House panels with complete access to classified information found that these programs had never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack in the United States, and one of them went further to say that these NSA operations had no basis in law at all. The first open court to ever review these programs, rather than the secret rubberstamp FISA court that only hears from the government and basically never says no, called the programs Orwellian and unconstitutional.

Congress is now working to pass the USA Freedom Act, which ends some of the most abusive programs entirely. So I would say, I would argue, I would submit to you, that when all three branches of government agree that these programs must end, it seems clear to me that they’re not a legitimate defense of our freedoms, but they’re in fact a clear and present danger to both them and our way of life as Americans.

Thank you very much for listening.


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