Today at the SXSW conference, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden joined the event digitally to speak about mass surveillance. Since his revelations began to spill last summer, Snowden has been a lightning rod for discussion regarding the proper role of government, and how we handle privacy as a kind.
In his remarks regarding the need for more consumer-friendly encryption, Snowden condemned the NSA, his former employer, and its leaders.
Painting Director of the National Security Agency General Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper with a single stroke, Snowden said that they have done more harm than anyone else to our national and Internet security. The NSA, in Snowden’s view, is “setting fire to the Internet,” and those in charge of the operation bear that guilt.
Snowden’s argument is simple: By “eroding our protections of communications to get an attack advantage,” the NSA is harming the integrity of the Internet itself, a field in which the United States has a global advantage in terms of innovation. Using an analogy of a vault, Snowden asked why the nation that has the most in their vault would build a backdoor in the vault itself instead of working to protect it. This correlates with Snowden’s view that the NSA is harming security by putting offense ahead of defense; making sure that there is a way into the vault instead of the opposite may not be the best way to keep its contents safe.
Does the disclosure that the NSA acts in that manner, and the methods by which it does so harm our national security? Snowden, unsurprisingly, doesn’t think so. In fact, he thinks that his work does the opposite, that it actually improves the nation’s safety. We rely on the ability to trust our communications, he said, and without that we have nothing. So, provided that we are moving towards more secure communication, we are moving towards safety.
Snowden’s argument is predicated on the idea that the integrity of your and my communications is tied to the nation’s larger interest. The connection between the two isn’t directly apparent, so let’s unpack the idea a bit. If the United States government can access the communications of its citizens on a pervasive basis, it implies that the communication itself is either insecure enough by default, or insecure enough by direct action to be accessed chronically.
This means that trust, to use Snowden’s term, is undercut. Less trust means less communication, and ultimately, I think it isn’t too much to claim, slower growth in economic activity; if I can’t trust my emails concerning our proposed business deal to be kept private, can we deal? This becomes even more difficult regarding international enterprise.
Another negative is that the U.S. government is not the only party that can walk through a door. Tools, methods, activities, and the like are open options for other governments to use; do the activities of the U.S. government encourage the leadership of other countries to do the same? Yes, Snowden said when posed the question.
How do you un-set fire to the Internet? The answer to pervasive surveillance is pervasive encryption, it seems. You can’t mass surveil when it’s unit-economics are expensive. In response to the NSA revelations, corporations are boosting security, especially in terms of encryption. That’s making us safer and more secure in Snowden’s view.
Regardless of your take on Snowden’s actions, we can say that the public is becoming increasingly informed about privacy and what they can expect from their government. That’s good. What we need next is highly encrypted, secure tools that are dead-simple to us. Snapchat isn’t popular just because ephemeral messaging is cool — it’s popular because it brings a modicum of more privacy at zero friction to end users. Something to think about.