“We don’t allow police to enter and search any home. We don’t typically reorder the operation of a free society for the convenience of the
police — because that is the definition of a police state,” he says, mopping up the last of the rice. “And yet some spies and officials are
trying to persuade us that we should. Now, I would argue there’s no real question that police in a police state would be more effective than those
in a free and liberal society where the police operate under tighter constraints. But which one would you rather live in?”
He has finished his curry and pronounces it “quite good”. The crab cakes are abandoned after a bite. “Less good,” he says. We order ice cream
— vanilla, strawberry and chocolate for him, sorbet for me. The voice on the phone launches into a complicated explanation of why, with five scoops
in all, we can have a discount.
Does he never lose sleep at night wondering whether Isis terrorists might not have gained some useful advantage from the information he disclosed?
Well, firstly, he says, in all the recent European attacks the suspects were known to the authorities, who thus had the ability to target them without
having to scoop up everyone else’s data as well. Secondly, he points out, Osama bin Laden stopped using a mobile phone in 1998 — not because of
leaks to newspapers but because “there is an aggressive form of Darwinism in terrorist circles. Long before we, the public, know about any of these
surveillance measures, they have already known for years because, if they had not, they are already dead.
“But,” he goes on, “let’s say that the newspapers had decided this should not be public. Let’s say the intelligence services had been able
to continue using these programs in secret. Would it have stopped any of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the last three years? There’s
no public evidence that that’s the case. In fact, there’s no classified evidence that that’s the case, or else we’d be reading it in the
We move on to talking about stories alleging Russian hacking of the NSA itself and of the Democratic party’s governing body, the Democratic National
Committee. The former involved a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, who threatened to auction very sophisticated alleged NSA surveillance tools.
The latter was a collection of DNC emails published — to general embarrassment — by WikiLeaks in July.
The Shadow Broker leak, says Snowden, “doesn’t strike me as a whistleblower: that strikes me as a warning. It’s political messaging being
carried out through information disclosure.” And the DNC hack, where, as he observes, the conventional wisdom is that it was the Russians? “This
is part of the problem of this surveillance free-for-all that we’re allowing to occur by refusing to moderate our own behaviour. We’ve set a kind
of global precedent that anything is possible and nothing is prohibited.
“Now, the fact the DNC got hacked is not surprising and interesting. We’re hacking political parties around the world, so is every country. What
makes it interesting is that some of the things taken from this server were published afterwards. That’s quite novel. I think.”
Which makes him think what? “That it’s for political effect.”
He says — as someone who used to try and do this sort of thing to the Chinese — that it would be easy to attribute the hack to whoever had done
it. “But this creates a problem because, let’s say, the NSA has the smoking gun that says the Russians hacked the DNC, and they tell us the
Russians hacked the DNC, how can we be sure? It presumes a level of trust that no longer exists.”
The ice creams arrive along with an espresso, replacing the first set of dishes on the bed. Snowden spills a bit of chicken curry on the duvet and
apologetically mops it up with a towel.
Aren’t we beginning to discover that no digital databases are secure? “We are living through a crisis in computer security the likes of which
we’ve never seen,” he says. “But until we solve the fundamental problem, which is that our policy incentivises offence to a greater degree than
defence, hacks will continue unpredictably and they will have increasingly larger effects and impacts.”
The answer, he thinks, is that there ought to be some form of liability for negligence in software architecture, such as would apply in the food
industry. He adds, drily: “People from my tribe will be extraordinarily mad at me for suggesting regulation in the terms of negligence for software
. . .
He has finished his ice cream and declines coffee. Life in Moscow is getting better, he says: “I’m more open now than I’ve been since 2013.”
He sees few people — such meetings as this are rare — and divides his time between public speaking (which pays the bills) and devising tools to
protect the digital security of journalists. He would rather not go into “the family stuff” or how often he sees Lindsay Mills, his partner, who
was left behind in Hawaii when he quit his job for the NSA there and disappeared to Hong Kong.
His American lawyer, Ben Wizner at the American Civil Liberties Union, is reported to be preparing to launch a petition to President Barack Obama to
grant Snowden a pardon before he steps down. Snowden will only say: “Of course I hope they’re successful but this has never really been about what
happens to me. No matter how the outcome shakes out, it’s something I can live with.”
An online ‘auction’ signals a build-up of tension between Russia and America
His chances of a happy ending under President Donald Trump would be zero, I observe. What about under President Hillary Clinton? “You’re trying to
drag me into a political quagmire,” he protests. He collects himself, looking intensely at the ground, before sidestepping the question: “I think
we should have better choices. We’re a country of 330m people and we seem to be being asked to make a choice between individuals whose lives are
defined by scandal. I simply think we should be capable of more.”
If he’s tough on the options in US politics, his willingness to tweet criticism of Russian politics to his 2.3m followers has not gone unnoticed.
“A lot of people who care about me tell me to shut up, but if I was married to my own self-interest, I never would have left Hawaii.
“I can’t fix the human rights situation in Russia, and realistically my priority is to fix my own country first, because that’s the one to which
I owe the greatest loyalty. But though the chances are it will make no difference, maybe it’ll help.”
He gathers up his dark glasses: it’s time for him to melt into the Moscow crowds. A final question: the Stone film shows him spiriting his trove of
secrets out of the NSA on a micro-SD card hidden in a Rubik’s Cube. True or false?
“Oliver confirmed in an interview recently that that’s a touch of the dramatic licence, but that’s only because I wouldn’t confirm or deny how
it really happened. I will say that I gave Rubik’s Cubes to everyone in my office, it’s true. I really did that.”
edit on 10-9-2016 by tayton because: (no reason given)