Edward Snowden holds Twitter Q&A session

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, who uncovered the National Security Agency’s invasive domestic surveillance program, took questions from Twitter users on Jan. 23, tackling queries about civil liberties, whether all spying is inherently wrong, and more. Users flocked to the social network, following the hashtag #AskSnowden. Many people are growing increasingly concerned about what they view as an assault on their privacy, with the NSA having collected phone and email records from millions of average Americans.

One of the issues on which Snowden commented was that of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s criticism of NSA spying. The Board (PCLOB) is an independent agency within the U.S. government’s executive branch, which ensures that civil liberties are not trampled upon during implementation of laws and policies connected to terrorism.

Snowden remarked, “The federal government’s PCLOB report on the NSA’s massive phone surveillance today (which stated the NSA has spied on at least 120,000,000 American phones) stated: ‘We are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.’ When even the federal government says the NSA failed to uncover even a single ‘plot,’ it’s time to end ‘bulk collection,’ which is a euphemism for mass surveillance. There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a zero percent success rate.”

When asked if democracy could recover from the damage the NSA has done to the civil liberties of American citizens and “netizens,” Snowden replied, “Yes. What makes our country strong is our system of values, not a snapshot of the structure of our agencies or the framework of our laws. We can correct the laws, restrain the overreach of agencies, and hold the senior officials responsible for abusive programs to account.”

“Not all spying is bad,” he added measuredly, in a reply to another question. “The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day. This is done not because it’s necessary, but because new technologies make it easy and cheap.

“I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record. It’s not good for our country, it’s not good for the world, and I wasn’t going to stand by and watch it happen, no matter how much it cost me.”

One of the topics Snowden seemed to steer clear of was President Obama’s Jan. 17 speech on NSA spying. Many felt that his talk of reforming the NSA’s surveillance policy was not bold and directive enough. According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent claimed they didn’t even know about the president’s proposed reforms, and 73 percent said the reforms will make no difference to protections on people’s privacy.

Wikileaks founder and publisher Julian Assange commented on the speech, remarking that at least whistleblowers like Snowden “have forced this debate.” However, he added, “This president has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the [Jan. 17] address. He’s been very reluctant to make any concrete reforms.”

Others believe the president is attempting to walk a middle ground, and that his idea for reforms would have “data still consolidated in one place, but searches [that] will require judicial approval or a ‘real emergency.’ “

But a middle ground may not be enough. Said Snowden, “This is a global problem, and America needs to take the lead in fixing it. The NSA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community are exceptionally well positioned to meet our intelligence requirements through targeted surveillance – the same way we’ve always done it – without resorting to the mass surveillance of entire populations.

“When we’re sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want to (up to and including Angela Merkel’s phone, if reports are to be believed), there’s no excuse for wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri.”

Photo: AP









Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. As a writer, he has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have also appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the 2010 BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Illinois and frequently visits his home state of New Jersey. He likes cats, red wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he is writing a novel and working on art. Using the pen name "Blake X," he writes a blog that can be found at blakedeppe.com.