So great to be around the privacy & transparency activists at #30c3 – so inspiring. Makes all the attacks irrelevant. Thanks for having me
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) December 27, 2013
Moderator: So that was your applause, Glenn! Welcome to the 30th Chaos Communication Congress, in Hamburg. The floor is yours!
Greenwald: Thank you, thank you very much.
Thank you everybody, for that warm welcome, and thank you as well to the Congress organizers for inviting me to speak.
My reaction, when I learned that I had been asked to deliver the keynote to this conference, was probably similar to the one some of you had, which was, “wait, what?”
And the reason is that my cryptographic and hacker skills are not exactly world-renowned. You know, the story has been told many times of how I almost lost the biggest national security story in the last decade, at least because I found the installation of PGP to be insurmountably annoying and difficult.
There’s another story, that’s very similar, that illustrates the same point, that I actually don’t think has been told before, which is: prior to my going to Hong Kong, I spent many hours with both Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, trying to get up to speed on the basics of security technology that I would need in order to report on this story. They tried to tutor me in all sorts of programs, and finally concluded that the only one, at least at that time, for that moment, that I could handle, was TrueCrypt.
They taught me the basics of TrueCrypt, and when I went to Hong Kong, before I would go to sleep, I would play around with TrueCrypt. I kind of taught myself a couple of functions that they hadn’t even taught me and really had this sort of confidence.
On the third or fourth day, I went over to meet both of them, and I was beaming with pride. I showed them all of the new things that I had taught myself how to do on TrueCrypt, and pronounced myself this Cryptographic Master. That I was really becoming advanced.
I looked at both of them, and I didn’t see any return pride coming my way. Actually, what I saw was them trying, really hard, to avoid rolling their eyes out of their heads at me, to one another.
I said, “Why are you reacting that way? Why isn’t that a great accomplishment?” They sort of let some moments go by. No one wanted to break it to me, until finally Snowden piped in and said, “TrueCrypt is really meant for your little kid brother to be able to master. It’s not all that impressive.”
I remember being very deflated, and kind of going back to the drawing board. Well, that was six months ago. In the interim, the importance of security technology and privacy technology has become really central to everything it is that I do. I really have learned an enormous amount, about both its importance and how it functions. And I’m far from the only one. I think one of the most significant outcomes of the last six months, but one of the most underdiscussed, is how many people now appreciate the importance of protecting the security of their communications.
If you go and look at my inbox from July, probably 3-5% of the emails I received were composed of PGP code. That percentage is definitely above 50% today, and probably well above 50%. When we talked about forming our new media company, we barely spent any time on the question. It was simply assumed that we were all going to use the most sophisticated encryption that was available to communicate with one another.
And I think, most encouragingly, whenever I’m contacted by anyone in journalism or activism, or any related fields, they either use encryption, or are embarrassed and ashamed that they don’t, and apologize for the fact that they don’t, and vow that they’re soon going to.
It’s a really remarkable sea-change, even from the middle of last year, when I would talk to some of the leading national security journalists, in the world, who were working on some of the most sensitive information, and virtually none of them knew what PGP or OTR or any other of the leading privacy technologies were, let alone how to use them. It’s really encouraging to see this technology spreading so pervasively.
I think that this underscores an extremely important point, one that gives me great cause for optimism. I’m often asked whether I think that the stories that we’ve been learning over the last six months, the reporting and the debates that have arisen will actually change anything and impose any real limits on the US surveillance state.
Typically, when people think the answer to that question is yes, the thing that they cite most commonly is probably the least significant, which is that there’s going to be some kind of debate, and our representatives in democratic government are going to respond to our debate, and they’re going to impose limits with legislative reform.
None of that is likely to happen. The US government and its allies are not going to voluntarily restrict their own surveillance powers in any meaningful way. In fact, the tactic of the US government that we see over and over, that we’ve seen historically, is to do the very opposite, which is that when they get caught doing something that brings them disrepute and causes scandal and concern, they’re very adept at pretending to reform themselves through symbolic gestures, while at the same time, doing very little other than placating citizen anger and often increasing their own powers that created the scandal in the first place.
We saw that in the mid-1970s, when there was serious concern and alarm in the United States, at least as much as there is now, if not more so, of the US government’s surveillance capabilities and abuse. What the US government did in response was that they said, “Well, we’re going to engage in all of these reforms, that will safeguard these powers. We’re going to create a special court that the government needs to go to to get permission before they can target people with surveillance.”
That sounded great, but then they created the court in the most warped way possible. It’s a secret court, where only the government gets to show up, where only the most pro-national security judges are appointed. So this court gave the appearance of oversight, when in reality it’s the most grotesque rubber stamp that is known to the Western world. They almost never disapprove of anything. It simply created the appearance that there was judicial oversight.
They also said they were going to create Congressional committees. The intelligence committees that are going to have as their main function overseeing the intelligence committees, and making certain that they no longer abuse their power. What they did instead was immediately install the most servile loyalists of the intelligence committees as head of this “oversight committee”.
That’s been going on for decades, and today we have two of the most slavish, pro-NSA members of Congress as the heads of these committees who are really there to bolster and justify everything and anything the NSA does, rather than engage in real oversight. So, again, it’s designed to prettify the process while bringing about no real reform.
This process is now repeating itself. You see the President appoint a handful of his closest loyalists to this “independent White House panel” that pretended to issue a report that was very balanced and critical of the surveillance state, but in reality, introduced a variety of programs that, at the very best, would simply make these programs slightly more palatable from a public perspective, and in many cases, intensify the powers of the surveillance state, rather than reining them in in any meaningful way.
So the answer to whether we’re or not going to have meaningful reform definitely does not lie in the typical processes of democratic accountability that we’re all taught to respect. But they do lie elsewhere. It is possible that there will be courts that will impose some meaningful restrictions by finding that the programs are unconstitutional.
It’s much more possible that other countries around the world who are truly indignant about the breaches of their privacy security will band together and create alternatives, either in terms of infrastructure, or legal regimes that will prevent the United States from exercising hegemony over the Internet or make the cost of doing so far too high. I think, even more promising is the fact that large private corporations, Internet companies and others will start finally paying a price for their collaboration with this spying regime.
We’ve seen that already, when they’ve been dragged into the light, and finally now are forced to account for what it is that they’re doing, and to realize that their economic interests are imperiled by the spying system, exercising their unparallelled power to demand that it be reined in. I think that all of those things are very possible as serious constraints on the surveillance state.
But I ultimately think that where the greatest hope lies is with the people in this room and the skills that all of you possess. The privacy technologies that have already been developed: the Tor Browser, PGP, OTR, and a variety of other products are making real inroads in preventing the US government and its allies from invading the sanctity of our communications.
None of them is perfect. None of them is invulnerable, but they all pose a serious obstacle to the US government’s ability to continue to destroy our privacy. And ultimately, the battle over Internet freedom, the question of whether or not the Internet will really be this tool of liberation and democratization and whether it’ll become the worst tool of human oppression in all of human history will be fought out, I think, primarily, on the technological battlefield.
The NSA and the US government certainly knows that. That’s why Keith Alexander gets dressed up in his little costumes, his dad jeans and his edgy black shirt and goes to hacker conferences.
And it’s why corporations in Silicon Valley, like Palantir Technologies, spend so much effort depicting themselves as these kind-of rebellious, pro-civil-libertarian factions, as they spend most of their time in secret working hand-in-hand with the intelligence community and the CIA to increase their capabilities, because they want to recruit particularly younger brainpower onto their side, the side of destroying privacy and putting the Internet to use for the world’s most powerful factions.
What the outcome of this conflict is, what the Internet ultimately becomes really is not answerable in any definitive way now. It depends so much on what it is that we, as human beings, do. One of the most pressing questions is whether people like the ones who are in this room, and the people who have the skills that you have, now and in the future, will succumb to those temptations, and go to work for the very entities that are attempting to destroy privacy around the world, or whether you will put your talents, skills and resources, to defending human beings from those invasions, and continuing to create effective technologies to protect our privacy. I am very optimistic, because that power does lie in your hands.
I want to talk about another cause for optimism that I have, which is that the pro-privacy alliance is a lot healthier and more vibrant. It’s a lot bigger and stronger than, I think, a lot of us, even who are in it, often appreciate and realize. Even more so, it is rapidly growing. And, I think, inexorably growing.
I know, for me, personally, every single thing that I have done, over the last six months, on this story, and all of the platforms I’ve been given, like this speech and the honors that I’ve received, and the accolades that I’ve been given, are ones that I share completely with two people who have been critically important to everything that I have done.
One of them is my unbelievably brave and incomparably brilliant collaborator, Laura Poitras.
You know, Laura doesn’t get a huge amount of attention, which is how she likes it, but she really does deserve every last recognition, honour and award because although it sounds cliche, it really is the case that without her, none of this would have happened.
We have talked every single day, virtually, over the last six months. We have made almost every decision, certainly every significant one, in complete partnership and collaboration. Being able to work with somebody who has that high level of understanding about Internet security, about strategies for protecting privacy, has been completely indispensable to the success of what we’ve been able to achieve.
And then, the second person who has been utterly indispensable and deserves every last accolade, and to share in every last award, is my [? 14:46] source, Edward Snowden.
It is really hard to put into words what a profound effect his choice has had on me, and on Laura, and on the people with whom we’ve worked directly, and on people with whom we’ve indirectly worked, and then millions and millions of people around the world. The courage and the principled act of conscience that he displayed will shape and inspire me for the rest of my life, and will inspire and convince millions and millions of people to take all sorts of acts that they might not have taken because they’ve seen what good for the world can be done by even a single individual.
But I think that it’s so important to realize, and to me, this is the critical point, is that none of us, the three of us, did what we did in a vacuum. We were all inspired by people who have done similar things in the past. I’m absolutely certain that Edward Snowden was inspired in all sorts of ways by the heroism and self-sacrifice of Chelsea Manning.
[audience applauds and cheers]
And I’m quite certain that, in one way or another, she (Chelsea Manning) was inspired by the whole litany of whistleblowers and other people of conscience who came before her to blow the whistle on extreme levels of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality among the world’s most powerful factions. They in turn were inspired, I’m certain, by the person who is one of my greatest political heroes, Daniel Ellsberg, who did this forty years ago.
Even beyond that, I think it is really important to realize that everything that has been allowed to happen over the last six months, and I think, any kind of significant leak and whistleblowing of classified information in the digital age, both past and future, owes a huge debt of gratitude to the organization which really pioneered the template, and that’s WikiLeaks.
You know, we didn’t completely copy, to the letter, the model of WikiLeaks. We modified it a little bit, just like WikiLeaks modified what it has decided it’s best tactics and strategies, as it went along and I’m sure people who come after us will modify what we have done to improve on what we have done and to avoid some of our mistakes and some of the attacks that have actually been successful. But I think the point that is really underscored here, and it was underscored for me, probably most powerfully, when Edward Snowden was rescued from Hong Kong, from probable arrest and imprisonment for the next thirty years by the United States, not only by WikiLeaks, but by an extraordinarily courageous and heroic woman, Sarah Harrison.
There’s a huge network of human beings, around the world, who believe in this cause, and not only believe in it, but are increasingly willing to devote their energies and their resources, and their time, and to sacrifice for it. There’s a reason that that’s remarkable, and it kind of occurred to me in a telephone call that I had with Laura, probably two months or so ago. Although we’ve communicated every day, we’ve almost never communicated by telephone. One of the few exceptions was we were going to speak at an event at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and we got on the phone the night before to sort-of talk about what ground she would cover, and what ground I would cover.
What she said to me is, “You know, it’s amazing if you think about it.” She went through the list of people who have devoted themselves to transparency and the price that they have paid. She said Edward Snowden is stuck in Russia facing thirty years in prison, Chelsea Manning is in prison, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. People like Jeremy Hammond and Barrett Brown are the subjects of grotesquely overzealous prosecutions by virtue of the acts of transparency they’ve engaged in. Even people like Jim Risen, who is with an organization like the New York Times, faces the possibility of prison for stories that he’s published.
Laura and I have been advised by countless lawyers that it is not safe for us to even travel to our own country, and she said, “It’s really a sign of how sick our political future has become, that the price for bringing transparency to the government, and for doing the job of the media, and the Congress, that they’re not doing, is this extreme form of punishment.”
You know, she was right, and she had a good point. I had a hard time disagreeing with the thing that anybody would. But I said, you know, there’s actually another interesting point that that list reveals. The thing that’s so interesting to me about that list is that it actually keeps growing, as long as it is. The reason why that’s so amazing to me is because the reason the people on that list, and others like them, pay a price, is because the United States knows that it’s only hope for continuing to maintain its regimen of secrecy, behind which it can engage in those radical and corrupt acts, is to intimidate, deter and threaten people who are would-be whistleblowers and transparency activists from coming forward and doing what it is that they do by showing them that they would be subjected to even the most extreme punishments and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
It’s an effective tactic. It works for some people, not because those people are cowardly, but because they’re rational. It really is the case that the United States and the British government are not only willing, but able to essentially engage in any conduct, no matter how grotesque, no matter how extreme, no matter how lawless, with very little opposition that they perceive is enough to make them not want to do it. So there are activists who rationally conclude that it’s not worth the price for me to pay in order to engage in that behaviour. That’s why they continue to do it. But the paradox is that there are a lot of other people, I think even more people, who react in exactly the opposite way.
When they see the US and the UK government showing their true face, showing the extent to which they’re willing to abuse their power, they don’t become scared or deterred, they become even more emboldened. And the reason for that is that when you see that these governments are really capable of that level of abuse of power, you realize that you can no longer, in good conscience, stand by and do nothing. It becomes an even greater imperative for you to come forward and shine a light on what they’re doing, and if you listen to any of those whistleblowers or activists, they’ll all say the same thing.
It was a slow process to realize that the acts in which you engage are justified but they were finally convinced of it by the actions of these governments themselves. It’s a really sweet irony, and I think it calls for serious optimism that it is the United States and its closest allies who are sowing the seeds of dissent, who are fuelling the fire of this activism with their own abusive behaviour.
Now, speaking of the attempt to intimidate and deter, and the like, I just want to spend a few minutes talking about the current posture of the United States government, with regard to Edward Snowden. It’s become extremely clear, at this point, that the US government, from the highest levels on down, is completely committed to pursuing only one outcome. That outcome is one where Edward Snowden ends up spending several decades, if not the rest of his life, in a small cage, probably cut off, in terms of communication, with the rest of the world. And the reason why they’re so intent on doing that is not hard to see. It’s not because they’re worried, that society needs to be protected from Edward Snowden, and from him repeating these actions. I think it’s probably a pretty safe bet that Edward Snowden’s security clearance is more or less permanently revoked.
The reason they’re so intent on it is because they cannot allow Edward Snowden to live any sort of a decent and free life because they’re petrified that that will inspire other people to follow his example, and to be unwilling to maintain this bond of secrecy when maintaining that bond does nothing but hide illegal and damaging conduct from the people who are most affected by it.
And what I find most amazing about that is not that the United States government is doing that, that’s what they do. It’s who they are. What I find amazing about it is that there are so many governments around the world, including ones that are capable of protecting his human rights, and who have been the biggest beneficiaries of his heroic revelations, who are willing to stand by and watch his human rights be crushed, him be imprisoned for the crime of showing the world what’s being done to their privacy.
It has really been startling to watch governments, including some of the largest in Europe, and their leaders, go out in public and express intense indignation over the fact that the privacy of their citizens is being systematically breached, and genuine indignation when they learn that their privacy has also been targeted.
[audience laughs, applauds]
Yet, at the same time, the person who sacrificed in order to defend their basic human rights, their rights to privacy, is now having his own human rights targeted and threatened in recrimination. And I realize that for any country like Germany or France, or Brazil, or any other country around the world, to defy the dictates of the United States, that there’s a cost of doing that. But there was an even greater cost to Edward Snowden to come forward and do what he did in defence of your rights, and yet he did it anyway.
I think that what’s really important to realize is that countries have the legal and the international obligations, by virtues of the treaties that they’ve signed, to defend Edward Snowden from political persecution, and prevent him from being in a cage for the rest of his life, for having shone a light on systematic abuses of privacy, and other forms of abuses of secrecy. But they also have the ethical and moral obligation as the beneficiaries of his actions, to do what he did for them, which is to protect his rights in return.
I want to spend a little bit of time talking about one of my favorite topics, which is journalism. When I was in Hong Kong, with Laura and Ed Snowden, and I’ve been reflecting on this a lot in the course of writing a book that I’ve been writing over the course of the past couple of months about everything that’s happened, one of the things I realized in looking back on that moment and also in talking to Laura about what took place there was that we spent at least as much time talking about issues relating to journalism and a free press as we did talking about surveillance policy. The reason is that we knew that what we were about to do would trigger as many debates over the proper role of journalists vis a vis the state and other power factions as it would the importance of Internet freedom and privacy, and the threat of the surveillance state.
We knew, in particular, that one of our most formidable adversaries was not simply going to be the intelligence agencies on which we were reporting, and who we were trying to expose, but also their most loyal, devoted servants, which calls itself the United States and British media.
And so we spent a great deal of time strategizing about it, we resolved that we were going to have to be very disruptive of the status quo. Not only the surveillance and political status quo, but also the journalistic status quo. And, I think, one of the ways we can see what it is we were targeting these and the behaviour of the media over the past six months since these revelations have emerged almost entirely without them and despite them.
One of the more remarkable things that has happened to me is I gave an interview, three weeks or so, or a month ago, on BBC, it was on this program called Hard Talk, and I, at one point, thought I had made what I thought was the very unremarkable and uncontroversial observation, that the reason why we have a free press is because national security officials routinely lie to the population in order to shield their power and to get their agenda advanced, and that the goal and duty of a journalist is to be adversarial to those people in power, and that the pronouncements that this interviewer was citing about how these government programs are critical to stopping terrorists should not be believed unless there’s actual evidence shown, that they’re actually true.
When I said that, he interrupted me, (and I’m sorry, I don’t do pompous British accents well, so you’ll just have to transpose it into your own imagination onto what I’m saying), and he said, “I just need to stop you, you have said something so remarkable!” He was like a Victorian priest scandalized by seeing a woman pull up her skirt a little bit above her ankles.
He said, “I just cannot believe that you would suggest that senior officials, generals in the United States and British government, are actually making false claims to the public! How can you possibly say something like that?”
[audience laughs, applauds]
And that is not aberrational. It really is the central view of, certainly, American and British media stars, that when, especially people with medals on their chests, who are called generals, but also high-ranking officials in the government, make claims, that those claims are presumptively treated as true without evidence, and that it’s almost immoral to call them into question, or to question their veracity.
Obviously, we went through the Iraq war, in which those two very same governments specifically and deliberately lied, repeatedly, to their people, over the course of two years, to justify an aggressive war that destroyed a country of 26 million people. But we’ve seen it continuously over the last six months as well. The very first document that Edward Snowden ever showed me was one that he explained would reveal unquestionable lying, by the senior national intelligence official of President Obama, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. That was the document that revealed that the Obama administration had succeeded in convincing a secret court to compel phone companies to turn over, to the NSA, every single phone record, of every single telephone call, local and international, of every single American, even though that National Security official, James Clapper, before the Senate, just months earlier, was asked, “Does the NSA collect whole data about the communications of Americans?” and he answered, “No, sir,” what we all now know is a complete lie.
There are other lies that the NSA and the US government’s top officials have told. And by ‘lie’ I mean, advisedly, things they know to be false that they’re saying anyway to convince people of what they want them to believe. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, repeatedly said that they are incapable of accounting for the exact number of calls and emails that they intercept from the American telecommunications system, even the program that we ended up exposing, Boundless Informant, counts with exact mathematical precision, exactly the data that he said he is incapable of providing. Or the NSA and the GCHQ, which have repeatedly said, that the purpose of these programs is to protect people from terrorism, and to safeguard national security, and that they never, unlike those evil thieves, engage in spying for economic reasons.
And yet, report after report that we revealed, from spying on the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras, to the spying on the Organization of American States and economic summits where economic accords were negotiated, to energy companies around the world in Europe, Asia and Latin America, just completely negate these claims, prove that they are lies. And then we have President Obama, who repeatedly says things like, “We cannot, and do not, spy or eavesdrop on the communications of Americans without warrants, even though the 2008 law that was enacted by the Congress, of which he was a part, had [? 34:49 -> 34:50] the US government to eavesdrop American’s communications without warrants.
And what you see here, is real lying. And yet, at the same time, the same media that sees it acts scandalized if you suggest that their claims should not be taken at face value, without evidence, because their role is not to be adversarial. Their role is to be loyal spokespeople to those powerful factions that they pretend to exercise oversight.
Just one more point on that, which is to understand just how the American and British media function. You can pretty much turn on the TV, at any moment, or open an Internet website, and see very brave American journalists calling Edward Snowden a criminal and demanding that he be extradited to the United States, and prosecuted and imprisoned. They’re very very brave when it comes to declaring people who are scorned in Washington, and who have no power, and have become marginalized. They’re very brave in condemning them, standing up to them, and demanding that the rule of law be applied to them faithfully. “He broke the law, he must pay the consequences.”
And yet, the top national security official of the United States government went to the senate and lied to their faces, everybody now knows, which is at least much of a serious crime as anything Edward Snowden is accused of.
You will be very hard pressed to find even a single one of those brave, intrepid journalists, ever thinking about, let alone expressing the idea that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper ought to be subject to the rule of law and be prosecuted and imprisoned for the crimes that he committed because the role of the US media and their British counterparts is to be voices for those with the greatest power, and to protect their interests and serve them.
Everything that we’ve done over the last six months, and everything that we’ve decided over the last month about forming a new media organization, is all about trying to subvert that process and reanimate, and reinstill the process of journalism for what it was intended to be, which was as a true adversarial force, a check against those with the greatest power.
So I just want to close with one last point, which is, the nature of the surveillance state that we’ve reported over the last six months. Every time I do an interview, people ask similar questions such as, what is the most significant story that you have revealed, or what is it that we have learned about the last story that you just published. And what I’ve really begun saying is that there really is only one overarching point that all of these stories have revealed.
And that is, and I say this without the slightest bit of hyperbole or melodrama, it’s not metaphorical and it’s not figurative, it is literally true, that the goal of the NSA, and its Five Eyes partners in the English-speaking world: Canada, New Zealand, Australia and especially the UK, is to eliminate privacy globally. To ensure that there can be no human communications that occur electronically, that evades their surveillance network.
They want to make sure that all forms of human communication, by telephone or by Internet, and all online activities, are collected, monitored, stored, and analyzed by that agency, and by their allies. That means that to describe that is to describe a ubiquitous surveillance state. You don’t need hyperbole to make that point, and you don’t need to believe me when I say that that’s their goal. Document after document within the archive that Edward Snowden provided us declare that to be their goal. They are obsessed with searching out any small little crevice on the planet where some form of communication might take place without their being able to invade it.
One of the stories that we’re working on now (I used to get in trouble when I was at The Guardian for previewing my stories, I’m not at The Guardian anymore so I’m going to do it anyway), is: the NSA and the GCHQ are being driven crazy by the idea that you can go on an airplane and use certain cellphone devices or Internet services and be away from their prying eyes for a few hours at a time. They are obsessed with finding ways to invade the systems of online, onboard Internet services and mobile phone services. The very idea that human beings can communicate, even for a few moments, without them being able to collect, and store, analyze, and monitor what it is that we’re saying, is simply intolerable. That is their institutional mandate.
And when I get asked questions, when I do interviews in different countries, well, “Why would they want to spy on this official?” Or, “Why would they want to spy on Sweden?” Or, “Why would they want to target this company here?” The premise of that question is really flawed. The premise of the question is that the NSA and the GCHQ need a specific reason to target somebody for surveillance. That is not how they think. They target every form of communication that they can possibly get their hands on. And if you think about what individual privacy does for us, as human beings, let alone what it does for us on a political level, that it really is the thing that lets us explore boundaries and engage in creativity, and use the mechanisms of dissent without fear. When you think about the world in which privacy is allowed to be eliminated, you’re really talking about eliminating everything that makes it valuable to be a free individual.
The surveillance state, by its necessity, by its very existence, breeds conformity, because when human beings know that they’re always susceptible to being watched, even if they’re not always being watched, the choices that they make are far more constrained, are far more limited, cling far more closely to orthodoxy, than when they can act in the private realm, and that’s precisely why the NSA and GCHQ, and the world’s most powerful [? 41:49] throughout history now, always as their first goal, have the elimination of privacy at the top of their list, because it’s what ensures that human beings can no longer resist the decrees that they’re issuing.
Well, thank you, once again very much.