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Glenn Greenwald on Government Snooping: Why It’s Dangerous and What We Can Do About It

When it comes to stopping NSA surveillance, it may be more effective to write to Facebook and Google than to government officials.

Glenn Greenwald speaking at the Young Americans for Liberty's Civil Liberties tour at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

One year ago, Edward Snowden was thrust upon the world stage when he began revealing what he called widespread violations of civil liberties by a growing “surveillance state.”

Glenn Greenwald, one of the three reporters who broke those stories—which won the Pulitzer Prize for public affairs reporting, the Polk Award for national security reporting, and the top award for investigative journalism from the Online News Association—has just published a book about his experiences: No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Greenwald found time during his current book tour to speak with YES! Executive Editor Dean Paton—about government threats to his reporting, as well as what citizens can do to protect and bolster civil liberties in the digital age. Their conversation has been lightly edited.

Paton: I thought I’d start by asking whether you felt apprehensive about coming back to your home country from your current home in Brazil, after all that’s been said about you by government officials and members of Congress.

Greenwald: Sure. They had deliberately cultivated this climate where they wanted us to be concerned that if we came back—myself and Laura Poitras in particular—there was a substantial chance that we would be arrested. We had top-level Obama officials and the chairman of the house intelligence committee Mike Rogers overtly calling us criminals and saying that what we were doing ought to be subject to prosecution. And we had lawyers who were trying to obtain guarantees that we could safely return to the U.S. and the officials simply wouldn’t provide them because they wanted us to be in this state of uncertainty.

So we did come back more for the principle than anything else. We weren’t going to be forced out of our own country for doing journalism, but it was definitely risky and apprehensive when we returned.

Paton: Why do you think they wanted you to feel that apprehension?

Greenwald: They know that we have this massive archive of documents that they can’t physically prevent us from publishing. And they want us to be in a state of fear, that each time we publish a certain document they don’t want published, it could be the difference between them not prosecuting us and prosecuting us. They are essentially using intimidation and the threat of prosecution to try and stifle and censor the reporting. And the more fearless we are, the more they think we’ll publish. The more fearful we are, the more they hope we’ll self-censor.

Paton: What’s your sense of how much they’ve already been spying, or, you know, eavesdropping—whatever term you want to use—on Americans engaged in lawful activity?

Greenwald: That’s part of the reporting that we’re working on now. I mean, of course, just the collection of metadata by itself, which they’re doing on everybody, is itself its own form of invasive surveillance—which is suspicion-less and indiscriminate. If you’re an American citizen, then if they want to target you for surveillance they’re supposed to have to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

But of course the FISA court is really no oversight at all because it rubber-stamps virtually everything the government asks it to do. And in its 35-year history, they’ve approved in excess of 35,000 requests for surveillance, and have rejected a grand total of 12. So it really is no form of guarantee or safeguard at all.

And then if you are an American talking to one of their foreign targets, they can actually read your emails and listen to your telephone conversations without any warrant at all. But one of the big questions that remains in this reporting that we’re working on now is: Who exactly, domestically, are they targeting? What kinds of people are these? Are these really terrorists or national security threats? Or are they more like foreign-policy critics and professors and authors and the like—people who’ve historically been targeted in surveillance abuses? And that’s the question we intend for our reporting to answer.

Paton: Are you considered a national security threat by the FISA court or by the NSA?

Greenwald: [Laughs] I mean, it’s possible. Of course, the FISA court conducts itself and its procedures completely in the dark, so no one has any idea who has been targeted or exactly how the process works. What I do know is that when my partner sued the British government claiming that his detention under the Terrorism Act at Heathrow airport for 11 hours was illegal, the British government, to justify why they detained him, filed documents making very clear that they were surveilling his communications, mine, and/or my colleagues at The Guardian.

So even if the U.S. government can’t target its own citizens, they often have partners in their surveillance alliance do it for them. And so, I think the protections are more illusory and symbolic than anything else.

Paton: Am I then legally a target of the NSA because I’m having a phone call with you, who’s done all this stuff that they consider a domestic threat?

Greenwald: Well, look at how the NSA justifies its metadata program. What they’ll say is that the only people whose telephone records they examine are those people who are considered threats or who are three hops away from those considered threats. Meaning—if I’m a threat—everybody I talk to, and then everybody those people talk to, and then everybody those people talk to. Which generally ends up being millions of people, just from those three hops alone. So yeah, they use associational analysis all the time to decide that you’re dangerous, or pose a threat, based not on things you’re doing, but the people with whom you’re interacting.

Paton: What’s your feeling about what kind of a threat the NSA poses to civil liberties and American citizens?

Greenwald: They pose an enormous threat. The goal, the institutional objective of the NSA, is captured by their own motto, which is “Collect it all.” And when this was first reported, they tried to claim that it was just an off-the-cuff joke by Keith Alexander [then-director of the NSA], who was just saying, “Oh, we should collect everything,” and that wasn’t really what they were trying to do.

But the documents, including many new ones I published in my book, make clear that this motto, “Collect it all,” is something that really does shape and define the agency’s mission. It appears over and over again. I mean, they’re literally devoted to the elimination of privacy in the digital age, by which I mean that they want to collect and store and—when they want—analyze and monitor every single communication event that takes place electronically between all human beings on the planet.

And when you eliminate the private realm, which is what that would do, you make all other forms of political liberty virtually impossible. If you don’t have a place where you can go and think and explore and be and plan and talk without official prying, judgmental eyes being cast upon you, all of the other liberties become nothing more than symbolic guarantees, rather than actual ones.

Paton: What can regular people do to fight back against the abuses of the NSA and the threats to civil liberties?

Greenwald: A lot. I don’t think that people should expect that the limitations on the power of the U.S. government will come from the U.S. government itself. That’s just not the way that power typically functions—that people walk around thinking, “How can I unilaterally limit my own power?” So I do think political pressure on political officials can help to some degree, but that isn’t the primary means of imposing limits.

There are other ways. I think that the coalitions that are forming on the part of other countries around the world to undermine U.S. hegemony over the Internet is important. But I think that even more important is that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Cisco and Yahoo are genuinely petrified about the effect that this surveillance will have on their future. Why would people around the world want to use U.S. tech companies if they know that those companies will turn their data over to the NSA? And you have Brazilian and Korean and German companies telling people, “You should use our services instead of theirs because we will protect the privacy of your communications.” And I think that’s one important thing that individuals can do, is refrain from using the services of companies that collaborate with the NSA, and instead use only those companies that are providing meaningful guarantees of your security.

And then the other thing is that the more people from around the world realize the extent to which their privacy has been compromised, the more they understand the need to use things like encryption technology to protect their privacy over the Internet. It’s absolutely legal, and it’s relatively—it’s not as easy as it should be to use, but it’s not as hard as a lot of people think it is. And it works.

Paton: Where would I go to find easy-to-access, easy-to-use encryption technology?

Greenwald: It’s not as easy as it should be to use, and that’s been one of the problems. We need to get to the point—and will get to the point soon, as a result of, I think, these disclosures—where there’s products that let you just encrypt without even realizing you’re doing it, where that’s just the default means of communication.

Paton: What about Lavabit, the company that Edward Snowden used to send his emails? I thought it was basically shut down by the government.

Greenwald: He was using an email system that took encryption very seriously, that the U.S. government was incapable of invading. So they went to court and got an order that compelled that company to turn over the encryption keys to the U.S. government, so that officials could circumvent the encryption wall. And rather than comply with what the owner of this company believed to be an unjust order, he just shut the whole company down. But that actually shows that encryption works.

Paton: So as long as I were to use a company that wasn’t being compelled by a court order to turn over their records, my stuff would be safe?

Greenwald: Well, there’s two different ways to protect your communications. One way is to use companies that do the encryption for you. But then the other way is to add your own encryption shell by using software like PGP, or “Pretty Good Privacy,” to encrypt your emails and other communications. So if you go to Google and just search for “How do I use PGP email,” you’ll find some guides that walk you through the process in a way that, even if you’re not very sophisticated technologically, you should be able to follow. But both forms of encryption are important.

Paton: Do you think it would help if regular citizens who use Google and Yahoo wrote those companies or emailed them and told them they were going to stop using them if they continued to comply with NSA requests for data?

Greenwald: Yeah, absolutely. The companies take that very seriously. Or just stop using them and then write them a letter telling them why. If you look at some of the reporting that has been done in the last month, there’s actually reporting that says that these companies are now building serious encryption walls to prevent the NSA from invading their systems. Either they’re taking these concerns very seriously, or at least trying to convince the public that they are. They are afraid of what the impact of this surveillance system will be on their future business. So any communication to them that makes clear that you do take that seriously will, I think, be of great value.

Paton: By these companies you mean the U.S. companies like Google and Yahoo and the rest?

Greenwald: And Facebook, yeah.

Paton: Any sense of what the mindset is of the people who are so dedicated to capturing everything?

Greenwald: I think it’s hard to talk about motive or mindset when you’re talking about institutions this large. It’s sort of like asking why the United States invaded Iraq. There’s so many different reasons found in different factions of the government that you can’t really isolate one or even a few.

But I think in general there has been this sense in the wake of 9/11 that these agencies need to be drowned with resources. And so when you take a bureaucracy like the NSA and just drown it in huge amounts of money, it will naturally expand its own mission because it doesn’t have any resource limit to prevent it from doing that. On top of that, you have huge amounts of profit that are being made because nearly 75 percent of the intelligence budget goes to private corporations, which means the more this surveillance state expands, the more private interests are enriched.

And then on top of that you have the fact that knowing everything you can know about other people, including those over whom you’re exercising power, has always been the most efficient way to maximize and bolster your own power and shield yourself from meaningful challenges. So I think it’s about power, it’s about profit, and it’s about bureaucratic inertia and the way that bureaucracies expand.

Paton: If you were to look ahead five years, what are the two ends of the possibility spectrum you see? How could it go well, how could it go badly?

Greenwald: I think it could go badly by simply continuing as-is. I do think privacy can be a more or less obsolete state of the human condition because the Internet isn’t just a thing that we use for discreet tasks, like the telephone or the post office. It’s the place where we do our most intimate exploration of who we are as human beings. To allow that to be turned into a ubiquitous, limitless system of surveillance is one of the most extreme forms of human coercion and control ever known.

On the other hand, if the public outrage that has been engendered globally is sustained, and people continue to take privacy on the Internet seriously by using encryption and by pressuring their government to develop technologies to keep the NSA and other agencies out of their Internet activities, I think that we can use technology to make it much more difficult for the U.S. government and other governments to invade people’s privacy this way.

Paton: Can you give us the names of any organizations that already exist that are trying to fight back against the invasions of the NSA and other organizations? I mean, public groups?

Greenwald: Sure. The ACLU does great work all the time in litigating privacy rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco is pretty much exclusively devoted to the idea of privacy in the digital age and has had some impressive wins against the government when it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests and litigating the unconstitutionality of a lot of this surveillance. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is similarly devoted to digital privacy. So there are definitely great groups out there that merit support or volunteerism or other kinds of effort to aid their efforts.

Paton: I’ve got one sort of just personal question I’m interested in. I’ve watched a lot of your interviews with the mainstream media, when people have tried to nail you. I’m impressed that you never get defensive. You come right back without even taking a breath and, again, sort of lay out what the real issue is. Why are you so good at that?

Greenwald: I appreciate that. I have a background in things like debate, which I did in high school and college, and of course I was a lawyer before I became a journalist and did a lot of courtroom work where maintaining your composure and keeping people focused on facts as opposed to emotional appeals is probably the paramount challenge. But I also think that it just comes from having passion.

I think if you believe in the sorts of things that you’re saying, then you’re willing to be attacked without taking it personally. You’re willing to have people try and undermine you without being emotional about it. And I think the opportunity to convince people of crucial facts they don’t typically hear is one that I don’t want to squander by losing control of myself or bickering or anything like that.

Paton: Has any of the mainstream press or the mainstream media been supportive of you?

Greenwald: There’ve been a lot of journalists who’ve been supportive. I mean, we won virtually every major journalism award for the work we’ve done over the last year, which are given out by journalists. It’s hard, when you win the Polk and the Pulitzer and everything else, to say there are no journalists supporting you.

But it’s been very divided. I mean, the people who’ve led the way calling for my prosecution or for saying the journalism is improper have also been journalists. Which is really odd, if you think about it, that in a democracy, it’s the journalists who are standing up, leading the way calling for journalism to be criminalized. It’s a bizarre state of affairs.

But you know, when we were back in Hong Kong talking about the challenges we were going to face, we knew that one of the major forces we were going to have to battle was the media itself—not just the NSA and the U.S. government and the Obama administration. We also knew that a big part of what we wanted to achieve was to trigger a debate, not just about surveillance and privacy, but also about journalism and the role that journalists should play vis-a-vis the state. I have been writing for many years about how subservient journalists are to government and corporate power, and how they see the world through that prism and attack anybody who challenges it.

Paton: How long do you see the series of articles going on, based on all the stuff you have from Edward Snowden?

Greenwald: It’s hard to say. There’s still a lot more to report. We’re all still working on ways to expand the scope of the journalists who have access to the archives so that we can make the reporting happen faster and in more places around the world. There’s just so much reporting left to do that increasing the scale of the journalists who have access to the material is necessary. But I think there’s probably a few more months of really big stories that will come from us, and then hopefully after that it will come from a lot more people.

Paton: Where are you on the spectrum of feeling threatened or fearful, and feeling like, you know, “Bring ’em on”?

Greenwald: What I tried hard to do in the beginning was to take inventory of all the risks that likely were going to arise as a result of the reporting I was about to do. And I knew I was going to be doing it aggressively, and that the attacks and threats would be sustained. And there were security threats involved in having this number of highly sensitive materials that huge numbers of governments around the world would like to get their hands on.

And then I tried to just prepare myself for those risks, and then put them out of my mind because if you allow yourself to sort of wallow in fear, it can be paralyzing. It can engender paranoia. It can make you refrain from doing things that you ought to do. But ultimately, the more the government seems threatening or bullying or intimidating, the more emboldened I actually become because it just convinces me all the more of why this transparency is necessary, and why these kinds of factions can’t be trusted to wield this sort of power in the dark.

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