Edward Snowden has used a live link to a conference in London to criticise Sir Malcolm Rifkind and describe weaknesses in the UK’s surveillance oversight.
Snowden explained that information gathered over the ‘Five Eyes’ mass surveillance system is stored in what is called a federated query system. Surveillance information is collected in various ‘buckets’ by national intelligence agencies that provide a searchable record of harvested data. He described today’s situation where intelligence agencies carry out universal monitoring as ‘deeply terrifying.’
‘It’s much worse in the UK than in the US. The UK’s own documents say that they have a ‘light oversight routine’, which is why they are concerned about a damaging public debate,’ said Snowden. ‘Intelligence oversight in the UK has failed fairly comprehensively.’
‘The official oversight processes – where the guys who are supposed to be overseeing the agencies – are actually meeting secretly to sell or influence to Chinese companies, which is sort of a counter-intelligence problem rather than oversight,’ he said, referring to intelligence oversight in the US.
Snowden criticised Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee for claiming that he cannot survive on less than £70,000 a year. ‘The question is whether, if we have people like that at this level, will we get policy that reflects broad public interests, or class interests?’ said Snowden.
‘The UK government were not worried about the public finding out about these activities because it would expose us to terrorists or cost lives, but because it would cause a damaging public debate,’ said Snowden. ‘The UK government claims it’s not mass surveillance – it’s bulk collection. This kind of Orwellian redefining of language does not help.’
Snowden added that while we don’t need to know about every programme, the public should know the broad strokes.
He also advocated end-to-end encryption to protect internet communication from ‘bucket’ gathering techniques used by intelligence agencies. Agencies should only engage in targeted interception, he said.
Westwood asked Snowden if he would like to see more files he handed to journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian to be revealed.
‘Absolutely,’ said Snowden. ‘The files are fairly well distributed with different organisations with eagerness to report.’
‘If I only provided information about the outrageous abuses that happen it would give a false impression of what happens in those agencies,’ he said. ‘They have to see that some of these programmes do serve legitimate purposes,’ he added.
Two independent White House panels reviewed surveillance on 300 million Americans, and found that the surveillance never stopped a single terrorist attack, Snowden noted. ‘Terrorism kills fewer people than cigarettes, alcohol and car accidents, but we don’t restructure our lives to avoid these threats,’ he said.
‘The only way they can get these programmes funded is on the basis of stopping attacks when we know this is not the case,’ he said. ‘It’s not going to stop terrorist attacks. Bin Laden stopped using a cellphone in 1998, but they do help you know who is involved in activism and who is involved in trade negotiations.’
While some of these capabilities should be retained, most should be scaled back, according to Snowden. He also described how he came to leave behind his life at the National Security Agency. ‘Sometimes an irrational commitment to principle is what society needs,’ he said.
‘I was living a charmed life. I didn’t graduate high school. My career high salary was about $200,000 and my last position salary was about $120,000. For a guy without a high school diploma that’s pretty good, and it wasn’t for much work. I was living in Hawaii. Nobody in the office expected that much,’ he said.
Snowden described a situation where his co-workers were bothered by some activities, but believed their cause was just. ‘These are good people trying to do hard work in difficult circumstances,’ he said. ‘Before this happened I had a much more forward-looking perspective. One of the liberating things about becoming a global fugitive is that you don’t worry so much about tomorrow. You worry more about today. Unexpectedly I like that very much.’