Edward Snowden Trevor Timm

Edward Snowden and Trevor Timm at the HopeX conference

Oh yes, yes, Edward Snowden is clearly the most dangerous man in America.

Speaking via video link (he uses Skype!) from Russia to the HopeX hackers’ conference in New York City July 19, Edward Snowden issued a call to arms to those present. Engineers, he said, “need to think now in adversarial terms to defeat government technical capabilities.” While the government now uses technology to shield themselves from accountability, software and hardware must “become a way to express our freedoms while protecting our freedoms.”

Technology and Government

Snowden went on to make a number of important points regarding the new relationship technology has created between the government and the people.

– Technology now makes it possible to publish information without the government’s ability to stop it. While the photocopier was the “killer app” of Daniel Ellsberg’s day, Wikileaks and Snowden’s own revelations show the empowerment potential of technology. Snowden reminded the audience that when the government fears its people (as opposed to the inverse), that is democracy.

– The value of masses of documents– evidence– cannot be understated because it cannot be ignored. Only mass evidence of NSA illegal spying “brought the president to the podium, and the people back to the table of government.”

– Snowden noted his and other whistleblowers’ attempts to “go through channels” with their concerns, but cautioned “The American Revolution was not fought for the right to channels.”

– Secret courts interpreting secret laws to issue secret findings carried out by secret agencies in secret defines much of our world today. The government through this “exploit chain” has shut us out from the process and policies that impact our lives.

– Via his NSA revelations, we now know a new truth about our world, that who we love, who we spend time with, who we hate is now known by people who are not held accountable, not even by the full Congress.

Encoding Our Rights

Snowden’s most important points were part of a call to action for technologists. He emphasized encryption, while very important, only protects content (what is written in your emails) and not metadata (information about to whom you send emails, for example.) This means, encryption or not, everything you communicate is being measured and analyzed; the government is programmatically examining our lives, in bulk, creating layers of suspicion by association. And in that sense, metadata is not about you, or me, it is about us, the collective us, all Americans and all others around the world.

In this sense, what the NSA is doing is perhaps greater, perhaps even worse, than “merely” listening in on what you say or reading what you write. They are, in a broader sense, creating a map of how every global citizen fits in with every other citizen. Pair that with whatever content is collected, and the NSA comes close to knowing everything.

That is why, Snowden told the crowd, the next job for us all, and Snowden’s own future work, will be to encode our rights into our technology, to take away by our own hands and intellect what the government has learned to use against us.

The key is to divorce the connection from the connector, i.e., create unattributable communications that destroy the government’s ability to collect and analyze metadata and run traffic analysis. Snowden gave the example of Tor, a secure enough networking tool. The big weakness of Tor is that the NSA can easily see that a computer has entered the Tor network, allowing them to otherwise easily target that computer, and, if possible, target the person associated with that computer. Same with someone who makes a call using the Verizon network. Divorcing the connection from the connector means cutting those links of association, forcing NSA to have to find some other means of targeting an individual or uncovering broader patterns.

Whistleblowers

A significant issue that holds many potential whistleblowers back is the risk of getting caught. Getting caught in this era means potentially life in prison, loss of family, loss of savings, loss of job and/or loss of status, position and identity. If technologists can lower the risk of getting caught, then that would likely make it more likely that more people would consider acts of patriotism and conscience. It is important that thousands (maybe hundred of thousands?) of people could have done what Snowden did, but only one man did it.

Snowden then made one of his most chilling, and significant points, unexpectedly.

He informed that crowd that there were almost certainly NSA operatives among them as he spoke. He explained that NSA has a budget just for sending people to hacker conferences, to see what they can learn, which people to look at further, and report back. Addressing those NSA people specifically, as well as the mass audience, Snowden challenged them directly to think about the world they wanted to live in, and then help build it.

Comment

Snowden just upped his game. In addition to his own work and revelations, he is now directing how others should proceed. He is combining technology and patriotism, whistleblowing and philosophy.

The NSA may be right; Edward Snowden may be the most dangerous man (virtually) in America.

Note: The presentation was built around a three-way discussion among Daniel Ellsberg, Trevor Timm and Ed Snowden. I’ve only reported on Snowden’s remarks, though seeing him interact with Ellsberg was like what I imagined being in the room would have been like when Bruce Springsteen met Pete Seeger.

Here’s the full audio of the presentation if you’d like to listen.

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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from from Amazon.