The mass surveillance programs that he revealed through media leaks in the last year have not only compromised the privacy and security of Americans, but have damaged the country’s economy, Edward Snowden said in an interview Monday.
Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole untold numbers of agency documents last year and has been feeding them to the media, said that because the United States government–and others–have been treating the Internet as a surveillance platform, the network has become far less usable and safe.
“The result has been adversarial Internet, a global free-fire zone for governments. It’s not something we asked for or wanted,” Snowden said, speaking remotely from Russia to an audience at the South By Southwest conference. “This is a global issue. They’re setting fire to the Internet.”
Snowden seemed polished and calm, speaking deliberately and without hesitation. The session he participated in was moderated by Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, and Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, and much of the discussion focused on the NSA’s use of mass surveillance techniques and what technologists and users can do to defend themselves. Asked whether the kinds of sweeping phone and Internet surveillance methods that the NSA uses are effective, Snowden said no.
“They’re not. We’ve reached a point where the majority of American’s phones are being recorded. We’ve got to think about what we’re doing with those resources,” he said. “What are we getting out of them?”
Soghoian, who has been a frequent vocal critic of the NSA and surveillance in general, said that not only is the government not helping citizens defend themselves online, it’s actively compromising the integrity of the network itself.
“What should be clear is that the government isn’t doing anything to make us secure. As a country, we have basically been left to ourselves,” Soghoian said. “The government has really been prioritizing its efforts on information collection. Our networks have been designed with surveillance in mind.”
Snowden and Soghoian both emphasized that the thing that gives users the nest chance of protecting themselves against both the NSA and more banal online threats is the use of encryption.
“It’s protection against the dark arts. The government has assembled a massive investigative team into me personally and they still have no idea what documents I have, because encryption works,” Snowden said.
NSA officials, legislators and other government officials have criticized Snowden’s actions and said repeatedly that he has damaged the security of the country. Snowden said that Gen. Keith Alexander, the current NSA director, and Michael Hayden, his predecessor, are the ones who have done the real damage.
“It was Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander in the post-9/11 era who made a very specific change. They elevated offensive operations over the defense of our communications,” he said. “This is a problem because America has more to lose than anyone else when an attack succeeds. It doesn’t make sense for you to be attacking all day and never defending your vault. We rely on the ability to trust our communications and without that our economy can’t succeed.”
Snowden has been in exile in Russia for several months and faces federal prosecution if he ever returns to the U.S. But he said that he doesn’t have any regrets about what he did.
“What I wanted to do was inform the public so they could provide their consent for what we should be doing. The result is that the public has benefited, the government has benefited and every single society has benefited,” Snowden said. “When it comes to would I do this again, the answer is absolutely yes.”