Snowden Q&A: Obama, Privacy, and His Own Future

Edward Snowden, former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency, participated in a live online interview Thursday, answering questions regarding privacy, President Barack Obama’s NSA announcement, and his own future going forward. Snowden, who was behind the leaked NSA documents, sparked the recent U.S. and international privacy concerns over intelligence surveillance.

Unsurprisingly, a number of the questions dealt with where the line falls between the importance of personal privacy and the necessities of security. “Not all spying is bad. The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day,” said Snowden in the interview. “When we’re sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want to (up to and including Angela Merkel’s phone, if reports are to be believed), there’s no excuse to be wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri,” he said.

He fielded queries on his Free Snowden website regarding President Obama’s  January 17 announcement of how the NSA would be changing moving forward. In the speech, Obama outlined concerns for both privacy and security, listing items to be put to congress and changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as well as a number of other policy changes and future plans.

Just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance and more and more private information is digitized,” said the president in his announcement. “Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in repeating the tragedy of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties.”

Some have criticized Obama for making this announcement ahead of an official report from a congressional oversight board. “I consulted with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by Congress,” he said in his announcement — however, the board’s report itself was released after the fact.

In it, the board expressed that it considers the NSA phone data collection program to be illegal. “While the Board appreciates the government’s efforts to bring the program under the oversight of the FISA court, the Board concludes that Section 215 does not provide an adequate legal basis to support the program,” reads the report. “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counter terrorism investigation.”

“The timing of [Obama’s] speech seems particularly interesting, given that it was accompanied by so many claims that ‘these programs have not been abused,” said Snowden Thursday. “When even the federal government says the NSA violated the constitution at least 120 million times under a single program, but failed to discover even a single ‘plot,’ it’s time to end ‘bulk collection,” he said.

One individual asked Snowden about the manner in which he took NSA documents, asking whether he’d considered the privacy of his co-workers when he was “stealing their log-in and password information?” The accusation stems from a Reuters article written by Mark Hosenball, who was told by sources briefed on the matter, that, “Passwords are in the possession of at least three different people and are valid for only a brief window each day,” wrote Hosenball.

Snowden denied the veracity of this statement, claiming that he did not steal or trick any co-workers. “With all due respect to Mark Hosenball, the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong,” he said. An article last month in Forbes potentially backed that up, with Andy Greenberg discussing input from an anonymous source within the NSA. The source described Snowden as eccentric but highly qualified, saying Snowden was “a genius among geniuses.” According to Greenberg’s communication with the anonymous co-worker, Snowden “earned the access used to pull off his leak by impressing superiors with sheer talent.”

Of course, not all believe Snowden is the self-sacrificing hero he’s been painted by many — including himself. “I’ve seen scripted Presidential ‘town halls’ that were less Potemkin Village-like than this so called #aksSnowden ‘chat,’” wrote Tom Watson, a contributor to Forbes and a lecturer with New York University.

Snowden discussed death threats he’s received, admitting they concern him, but emphasizing that he won’t be cowed. “Doing the right thing means have no regrets,” he said. As for his future in the United States, his return is presently highly unlikely — despite a desire to do so — as the laws protecting whistle-blowers do not apply in his case as a security contractor. Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General, speaks in the video below on what conversations could be had with regards to Snowden’s legal future.

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