Snowden mask at Freedom not Fear march, Berlin. Flickr/mw238. Some rights reserved.Peter Taylor: Why did you decide to do what you did?
Edward Snowden: When I was sitting at my desk, working with tools of mass surveillance every day, I saw that all of our communications were being intercepted all of the time in the absence of any suspicion of wrongdoing. And this was something that was occurring without our knowledge, without our consent.
I worked as an infrastructure analyst. I had a special level of clearance, called ‘Priv Ac’, privileged access. Where normal people have to request access to this document or that document, I had access to everything by nature of my role.
And that included documents from the British government.
The documents, they established that mass surveillance, the surveillance of populations instead of individual suspects, was occurring every day, all the time.
We're expected to trust these agencies, with complete access to the total details of our lives.
PT: And they're expected to trust people like you, a trust that you betrayed. The trust works two ways.
ES: I fulfilled the roles and the obligations of my oath in a manner which they did not. I haven't benefited in any way from disclosure of this information. Moreover, I have never published a single document. I worked with journalists who in American society at least are the representatives of the public in determining what the public interest is in understanding certain facts, and realities that the government many times would prefer to keep secret.
PT: When you decided to make these revelations, did you think about the possible consequences, that you might end up an exile, not necessarily in Russia, but that you will be pursued? And the United States government is unlikely to call it a day, it's going to pursue you until it gets you?
ES: Er, of course.
PT: You must have done.
ES: Yeah I, I don't think there's anybody that can be in that situation...
PT: And many years in jail.
There's never been a convincing case made that anyone's come to harm as a result of these publications.
ES: I was more concerned with the consequences for society in general – would this cause harm, would anybody face some unnecessary risk as a result – than I was for myself. I expected that the most likely consequence would be that I would be, you know, in an orange jumpsuit, super-max prison in isolation or Guantanamo.
What I thought about exhaustively was, how do we make sure that we know what we need to in order to be able to protect ourselves? And to be able to protect free society against the natural inclinations of secret agencies and bureaucracy, as technology continues to advance, and they gain more and more power.
There's never been a convincing case made that anyone's come to harm as a result of these publications. But there is an exhaustive list of public goods that have come from the same result.
Menwith Hill radomes. Flickr/Tom Blackwell. Some rights reserved.GCHQ is for all most intents and purposes a subsidiary of the NSA.
PT: What is the relationship between the NSA, the National Security Agency in America and GCHQ, the UK equivalent?
ES: The easiest way to conceptualise that relationship is that the GCHQ is for all most intents and purposes a subsidiary of the NSA. The NSA more often than not provides funding, I believe they provide millions of dollars to the GCHQ's budget every year. They provide technology, they provide tasking and direction as to what they should go after. And in exchange, the GCHQ provides access to communications that are collected in the United Kingdom and at all of the different bases and points of collection that are under the control of the United Kingdom.
PT: Around the world?
ES: Around the world.
PT: It's not true to say they're just a secondary department. They share the common aims and the common aim is the greater good, isn't it, to keep us all safe and secure?
ES: Well that's no different than saying that a subsidiary of a particular corporation that shares the same aim of profit is, you know, any different because they share the same goal.
PT: The NSA and GCHQ say, yes, we collect massive, huge amounts of data, but the actual amount of data that we look at in particular is miniscule, that they're not in the business of finding out about everybody, they have particular targets in which they're interested and their collection methodology means that they can, in the end, identify the people that they're looking for: the terrorists or the criminals or the drug traffickers. But to find out who those targets are they've got to collect mass data.
ES: Well let's presume that their claims match the reality of what's happening. Let's say that they are collecting all of this information about everybody, they know everything that you do, everywhere you go.
PT: They're not interested.
ES: Right, what you do behind closed doors, they're not interested and they don't read it and they only use this when it's necessary and proportionate to a serious criminal threat – that sounds like a pretty persuasive claim that they could make to the public and get legislation to support that right?
So why didn't they?
They found that these programmes were not effective in stopping terrorist attacks.
PT: Many members of the public, certainly in the UK, would say, yes, GCHQ are doing this, and frankly I don't care if it helps them identify the bad guys and I've got nothing to hide – I'm not a bad guy.
ES: Many people would say that and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong, and this is something that people can debate, but the question that's raised by that is, is it true? Are these programmes effective? Do they keep us safe? The White House appointed two investigatory panels, and they found that these programmes were not effective in stopping terrorist attacks.
GCHQ’s ‘Smurf Suite’ tools can compromise mobile phones. Flickr/Judit Klein. Some rights reserved.PT: What information, what intelligence can the agencies get from this, a smart phone?
ES: Who you call, what you've texted, the things you've browsed on your phone, the list of your contacts, the places you've been, the wireless locations that you or the wireless networks that your phone is associated with, for example, at your home, in your office.
So, the 'Smurf Suite' is a collection of capabilities specifically targeting the iPhone. Dreamy Smurf is the power management tool which means turning your phone on and off without you knowing.
PT: Even if I turn my phone off.
PT: And then we've got Nosey Smurf, what's Nosey Smurf?
ES: Nosey Smurf is the ‘hot micing’ tool. ‘Hot micing’ is when you activate the microphone on a telephone as if it were having a call but without anybody dialling a call. So, for example, if it’s in your pocket they can turn the microphone on and listen to everything that's going on around you.
PT: Even if my phone is switched off.
ES: Even if your phone is switched off, because they've got the other tools for turning it on.
PT: Tracker Smurf, what's Tracker Smurf?
ES: Ah, that's a geo-location tool which allows them to follow you with a greater precision than you would get from the typical triangulation of cell phone towers.
They want to own your phone instead of you.
PT: And lastly, Paranoid Smurf, what is Paranoid Smurf?
ES: Paranoid Smurf is actually a self-protection tool that's used to armour their manipulation of your phone. So, for example, if you wanted to take the phone in to get it serviced because you saw something strange going on or you suspected something was wrong, it makes it much more difficult for any technician to realise that anything's gone amiss.
They want to own your phone instead of you.
PT: This particular document refers to just the iPhone. Do those principles apply to other smart phones?
ES: Absolutely, I mean, android phones are the major competitor, any smart phone… What you want to think about is a cell phone is a constantly connected location device that has a microphone attached to it and if you were a surveillance agency, it’s a sort of a target that's simply too tempting to ignore.
A Snowden document revealed how GCHQ hacked data from a foreign country using CNE. Flickr/Marc Barnes. Some rights reserved.Computer Network Exploitation is basically digital espionage, you're trying to control things that you don't own through digital code.
ES: Computer Network Exploitation is basically digital espionage, you're trying to control things that you don't own through digital code, digital weapons, to gain information intelligence about their operation.
PT: One of the documents that you reveal, again marked ‘Top Secret’, is about computer network exploitation, and one section refers to the way – this is a GCHQ document – refers to the way in which GCHQ hacked into or hacked the Cisco Router into Pakistan and it says this affords access to almost any user of the internet inside Pakistan. Now how would they do that?
ES: So, the way the internet works is you've got your computer on one end and you've got the other person's computer on the other but in order to make that wire connection here to here, it’s got to go under the ground and through all these different buildings, through network operators, network service providers. Now what the Intelligence Agencies like to do is they'll hack those network service providers and secretly take ownership of the devices that are affecting traffic.
PT: Without the service providers knowing about it?
ES: Without the service providers ever knowing about it.
The questions that these companies ask is, who do we work for, our customers or the government?
PT: And when in this particular case Cisco found out, what was that reaction, what was Cisco's reaction?
ES: Well the companies will be incredibly angry because what they're doing is they're compromising the trust in the product, in the services that these companies, which are critical parts of our economy, have with their customers. The questions that these companies ask is, who do we work for, our customers or the government?
This GCHQ document that shows how GCHQ accessed the Cisco routers, with all the material coming in from Pakistan and being passed onto GCHQ, was legal, wasn't illegal, because the document is about seeking authorisation for continuation of these kinds of programmes. So we're not talking about illegality here. This was quite legal?
Sometimes what's scariest is not what the government is doing that's unlawful, but what they're doing that is completely lawful. Now the dangers of these programmes is that when you hack a router, you're not monitoring one person, you're monitoring millions of people.
PT: And that's why they hack the routers?
Who is best positioned to assess the lawfulness of an intrusion into an individual's life rights: a minister or a judge?
PT: The UK parliament is about to start debating an important new piece of legislation called the Investigatory Powers Bill. What would you say to our legislators when they're considering what they should say and how they should vote?
ES: You need to impose a structure of oversight that will allow both members of government and the public to verify that their activities are proper and appropriate at all times, and that those who violate them can be held to account.
I think the real question is, who is best positioned to assess the lawfulness of an intrusion into an individual's life rights: a minister or a judge? When I look at it, it seems quite clear to me that the courts should be the place to resolve those controversies.
Wikimedia Commons/Freedom of the Press Foundation. Some rights reserved.PRISM revealed that the government would go to this secret court, that would provide these secret orders, it's a rubber stamp court that never says no. And they would say, we want to have access to this individual’s communications or that individual’s communications without going through the typical legal process of an open court.
PT: Nobody knew this was going on.
ES: And nobody knew that this was going on.
PT: Did the material that was handed by the social media companies to the NSA, was that shared with GCHQ?
ES: There's no way to know, in many cases the answer would be yes.
PT: On social media, at the moment there appears to be a standoff between the social media companies, the Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitters and the government, the intelligence agencies. Intelligence agencies say we need access to the material you've got because we wish to identify the bad guys. The social media companies or most of them are saying, but wait a minute, our priority is privacy. Where do you stand on that?
ES: Right, it's really a question of free enterprise. Who do companies work for? Do they work for their customers or do they work for governments, and remember, if a company begins accepting requests to break the security of their communications for one government, they have to do it for all of them or they'll be excluded from the markets.
PT: You mean they'll have to do it for the Russian government?
PT: The Chinese government?
ES: Precisely. If we say we'll build a backdoor for the United Kingdom to be able to search for terrorists, the Chinese will immediately come forward and say, if you want to sell your product in China, you have to provide us with the same capability.
Most people would say, you know, living in exile is a big loss.
PT: General Michael Hayden, who is not one of your biggest fans, says this is the most serious haemorrhaging of American secrets in the history of American espionage and it's set back US intelligence capabilities by years, if not decades. Aren't you a traitor?
ES: Michael Hayden is the man who first authorised the wireless tapping of everyone in the United States, which continued for a period of more than ten years, until it was revealed by me, which ended the programme and restored a level of constitutional protection of everyone in the United States. Now the question here is, who does Michael Hayden serve? I didn't sell information and I didn't benefit from this in any way. Most people would say, you know, living in exile is a big loss.
Who is the government working for? Are they working for the people or are they working against us?
PT: Michael Hayden would say that his job, his role, is to protect the American people, to protect them from harm, and what he's saying is what you have done is the opposite, that your revelations have seriously damaged the American people.
Are you a traitor?
ES: Of course not. The question is, if I was a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to American journalists and free society generally. Who is the government working for? Are they working for the people or are they working against us?
PT: With regard to your future, the former US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has said that now, “a possibility exists for the Justice Department to cut a deal”. Is that under consideration? Is that a possibility?
ES: We have seen a big change since 2013 when the government denounced me in the harshest terms, that I had blood on my hands. We don't hear that any more and as a result I am increasingly optimistic that the government will reconsider the wisdom of charging whistle-blowers in the same way they charge spies.
I won't serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.
PT: But thinking of your future, would you be prepared to do some kind of deal, some kind of plea bargain?
ES: Of course, I've volunteered to go to prison with the government many times. What I won't do is I won't serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.
PT: But you would be prepared to face a jail sentence, would you?
ES: Of course.
The Kremlin. Demotix/Velar Grant. All rights reserved.PT: Isn't it ironic that you, a defender of freedom, of civil liberties, are here enjoying, perhaps enjoying isn't the word, but you're here as a result of the hospitality of Russia whose record on human and civil rights, and liberties and privacy, won't really withstand scrutiny?
ES: I applied for asylum in 21 different countries, so all throughout western Europe and other parts of the world, and all of them tried to avoid giving an answer, because they didn't want to risk either alienating their public, by punishing people who are working to protect human rights, or to alienate the United States government by taking a public side against them.
But I've made it clear, that I'm always willing to return home.
I would return home tomorrow as long as the government was prepared to be reasonable in protecting the interests of our rights in society.
So far they've said they won't torture me, which is a start, I think.
PT: And how would you describe the government's reasonableness in this case, what will you be looking to, from them, for you to return?
ES: Well so far they've said they won't torture me, which is a start, I think. But we haven't gotten much further than that.
PT: But it's something you, your lawyers are actively discussing with the government I assume?
ES: We're still waiting for them to call us back.
PT: How are you managing in Russia, I mean, where's your money coming from? You've got to live, you've got to eat, you've got to clothe yourself. Where's the money coming from?
ES: I've been extremely fortunate. I made an extraordinary amount of money for someone with my qualifications before I left and I took everything that I had with me on my back.
PT: How do you access that money?
ES: Well it was in cash, but since then…
PT: How much did you bring out with you?
ES: Well I can't say that because it would probably violate some customs declaration.
I burned my life to the ground to work against surveillance.
PT: People seeing what you say and listening to what you say, here in Russia, will say now wait a minute, here he is, enjoying the hospitality of Russia, of Vladimir Putin, he must have done a deal; there must be a quid pro quo, the FSB wouldn't simply let you stay here without drilling you about what you've done, your secrets. Have you done a deal with the FSB?
ES: Of course not. I burned my life to the ground to work against surveillance. Why would I suddenly turn around just because I'm in a different geographical location and say, yes, now I'm all about surveillance, that's what I'd like to do from now on. It doesn't make sense.
PT: But one assumes that the Russians, the FSB, would want to find out all that they could from you about what you did and how you did it, but you know, you are a golden catch, a golden asset on their doorstep.
PT: For the next two years.
ES: That's all public already. Everything, you know, I, I worked for, everything that I knew has already been revealed, it's in the hands of journalists. I have no further value.
PT: Has the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, talked to you?
ES: Of course, when I was in the airport, I brought no information with me from Hong Kong. That was left with journalists, precisely because I knew that I would be transiting areas where I wouldn't be able to control my person, my effects. So the only way to protect this information was to not have it at all.
PT: If I gave you my computer, given your capabilities at a computer, couldn't you access the data that you once had but no longer have? Isn't it there?
ES: No, no.
PT: On your own personal iCloud?
ES: No, no, no, so this, this information that was provided to journalists, it's stored offline, what we call air-gap systems. They have no connections to the internet or anything like that, precisely to protect them against this kind of offensive cyber-operation and so forth, so no, I mean, there's nothing that can be done about that.
The only way to protect yourself against that kind of coercion or subversion, is to simply not know the answers at all.
I know how to keep a secret safe and I also know when the public needs to know it.
'Asylum for Snowden'. Flickr/Tony Webster. Some rights reserved.The longer you wait with programmes like this, the more deeply entrenched they become and the more difficult they are to reform.
PT: When you look at all that has happened and when you look at your future which will probably entail a period, perhaps a very long period in jail, would you do the same again? Do you have any regrets about what you've done?
ES: I regret that I didn't come forward sooner, because the longer you wait with programmes like this, the more deeply entrenched they become and the more difficult they are to reform. You have to stop them early and you have to stop them fast. I have paid a price but I'm comfortable with that and I have to say, I sleep more soundly now than I ever have before.
PT: I would have thought you might wake up at night thinking, what on earth is going to happen to me?
ES: The best part about being sort of a, you know, marked man, is that you no longer have to think about tomorrow. Instead you just live for today.
ES: I hope not but, at this point, I feel comfortable with the decisions I've made. If I'm gone tomorrow, I'm happy with what I had, I feel blessed.
"How to maintain a balance between security and freedom in a democratic society under threat? Can democracies resist the escalation of fear and formulate responses based on civic responsibility and active citizenship? Can they deal effectively with security risks linked to the digital revolution without jeopardising individual rights and freedoms, the benefits of the digital revolution and democratic institutions?" openDemocracy will be examining these questions in partnership with the 2015 World Forum for Democracy during the next six months, starting with a Guest Week series on the openDemocracy homepage from 26th October 2015.