While we’re still two months away from an actual Trump presidency, tech companies and civil liberties advocates are already grappling with the question of what his ascendency means for privacy and surveillance. Among those weighing in? NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“We are never farther than a single election away from a change in government, from a change in policy, from a change in the way the powers that we have constructed into a system are used,” Snowden said today in a moderated question-and-answer session sponsored by the UK-based search engine Start Page. That’s always been true but perhaps feels more vital now than ever.
Snowden was several steps removed from the US when he made his remarks; the event was livestreamed by Start Page, which masks user IP addresses for a more private browsing experience. Snowden himself spoke from Russia to a live audience in a theater in Amsterdam.
He also wasn’t the only tech luminary participating. Encryption pioneer Phil Zimmerman, who created PGP over two decades ago to enable secure communication between devices, was also there. Snowden himself used PGP to make initial contact with the journalists with whom he shared the files he secreted out of the NSA. As it turns out, it was Zimmerman who most succinctly voiced the concerns felt in the security community.
“When I wrote the PGP manual about 25 years ago, I described in there the idea that if we build a surveillance infrastructure like we seem to be doing, that it could be used by a future government that could be elected in a democratic election that could use it for whatever evil purposes they might have,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes, in a democracy, bad people can be elected. And if they inherit a technology infrastructure, a surveillance infrastructure, like we’ve constructed, they can use that to hang onto power.”
Snowden expressed concern about the global erosion of privacy. Citing the recent expansion of government surveillance in Russia and China, and the potential for the same in the UK, he worried that the US had set a global precedent, and more importantly, had put itself in a position where it could not help defend civil liberties elsewhere.
“Because our last presidential administration had been saying that these powers were so valuable and so necessary and didn’t hurt anybody, now suddenly they can’t criticize other governments for doing the same thing,” Snowden said.
Bigger Than Trump
That aligns with what domestic digital rights advocates have said this week as well; concerns about the surveillance powers held by the executive branch are hardly Trump-specific. Over the past several years, the president has gained extraordinary powers. And many of the curbs that the Obama administration put in place in the wake of the Snowden NSA revelations of 2013 could easily be rolled back with the help of a compliant Republican Congress. Or even without; many of the limits placed on the NSA came via executive order. Trump could change those out as easily as he could the White House drapes.
“You want to have those reforms enshrined in law,” says ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani. “Nobody should be relying on a particular administration and the goodwill of a particular person to feel confident that their information isn’t being improperly accessed by the government for purposes that are not legitimate.”
Trump and the GOP will soon have to face this issue head-on. Guliani says that next year section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Service Act—under whose auspices the NSA collected bulk phone and Internet data from US companies—will be up for reauthorization. Section 702 is what allowed for PRISM, the earth-shaking surveillance program that was Snowden’s first big reveal. And that’s just one of several security crossroads facing the next administration.
“The state of security hangs in the balance,” said Rainey Reitman, activism director at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a statement. “The last year saw a concerted effort to undermine the availability and security of encryption, and in a matter of weeks a rule change to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure will make it easier than ever before for the government to hack into computers.”
Snowden advised viewers of the livestream to implement basic security hygiene like encrypting their devices, using encrypted messaging apps like Signal and the relatively anonymous browsing offered by Tor.
“What you can do is say that you care,” Snowden said. “You can talk to your family, you can talk to your community to raise awareness of things. And then you can act to make sure that those people who are experts have the ability to have a platform, to have the resources, to have the support to actually achieve it.”
All of that was just as true before Trump as it will be after. In fact, one of the biggest concrete changes may be in what becomes of Snowden himself.
The reason Snowden spoke at such a remove is, of course, that he’s still wanted by the US government. That won’t change. What Trump introduces, though, is a potentially thawed relationship between the US and Russia that could someday result in Snowden’s extradition.
“It’s possible,” Snowden said in response to an audience question about that possibility. “It would be crazy to dismiss the idea of this guy who presents himself as a big dealmaker of trying to make a deal.”
But Snowden also says he’s “not worried about it.” The Russian government views him as a “human rights defender,” a protected class. He also said, as he has in the past, that he would return home to stand trial on the condition that a jury would decide his fate. (Snowden is currently charged under the Espionage Act, which would preclude a jury trial.)
If anything, in fact, his overall message was one of hope.
“I think despite the challenges we have in the United States, despite the changes in government, despite some of the very concerning statements made by our president-elect, this is a nation that will strive to get better,” Snowden said. “We can prove once and for all that America has a greater commitment to justice than it does simply to the law.”