NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden gave a video interview to the Guardian this week to discuss the state of internet privacy, the changing landscape of investigative journalism, and what his life has been like since he released the classified documents last year that exposed the U.S. government's global surveillance program. In one of the more poignant moments of the interview, Snowden spoke thoughtfully — and bluntly — about what his future might be if he leaves asylum in Russia and returns home to the U.S.
"If I end up in chains in Guantanamo," Snowden told his interviewers, "I can live with that."
Snowden also called on lawyers, journalists, doctors, and others who handle sensitive information to use alternative "zero-knowledge" security software and search engines that would protect confidentiality of sources and clients online better than Skype, Dropbox, or Google, for example. In some cases, he said, the big companies are actively anti-privacy, noting that Dropbox just added surveillance advocate Condoleezza Rice to their board of directors and calling them a "wannabe PRISM partner."
Technology can be useful for privacy, he said, as long as we don't "sleepwalk" into accepting new apps. "We shouldn't trust them without verifying what their activities are, how they're using our data, and deciding for ourselves whether it's appropriate where they draw the lines," he said.
Google and Skype have been useful for hosting public chats and interviews, Snowden said, but he would never rely on them in his personal life.
Currently, with a lack of reliable privacy software and the consequences of unlimited government power, journalism has become "immeasurably harder," Snowden said. The first contact with a source, "before encrypted communications are established, is enough to give it all away." He said new training for professionals who handle private information is necessary to ensure safety for the "average member of our society," particularly as technical literacy has become "a rare and precious resource."
There should be no distinction between digital information and printed or spoken information, Snowden said. "If we confess something to our priest inside a church, that would be private, but is it any different if we send our pastor a private email confessing a crisis that we have in our life?"
Before leaking the NSA documents to the public, Snowden said he first tried to address the matters that concerned him internally, asking colleagues and supervisors about the more nefarious elements of the program.
"I said, 'What do you think about this? Isn't this unusual? How can we be doing this? Isn't this unconstitutional? Isn't this a violation of rights?'" he recalled.
He was particularly worried about the fact that the many of the NSA's invasive systems were used for fun. Snowden described a troubling work environment where unlimited access to private information was regularly taken advantage of by individual employees. If the surveillance program happened to pick up a person's nude photographs, for example, co-workers would distribute them around the office, where a culture of lax supervision meant that no one was ever held responsible.
Many of the agency's surveillance workers were young men, 18 to 22, who had "suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all of your private records," Snowden said. "It's never reported. Nobody ever knows about it because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak."
Unauthorized access to intimate information and being able to share it privately with impunity are seen as "the fringe benefits of surveillance positions," he said.
An NSA spokesperson did not deny Snowden's claim, but told Forbes that the agency "has zero tolerance for willful violations of the agency’s authorities or professional standards, and would respond as appropriate to any credible allegations of misconduct.”
Responses to Snowden's document leak and subsequent interviews have been mixed.
Richard George, a former NSA mathematician, released a report (PDF) on Friday claiming that events like Snowden's leak make it harder for intelligence agencies to predict and stop terrorist events. "NSA is just one player on the team—from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, to local police and fire departments—whose reason for existence is to protect the people of this nation. Events like the Snowden leaks make that effort harder," George wrote.
Snowden had inadvertently preempted George's argument in his interview. "It may be that by seizing all of the records of our private activities, by watching everywhere we go, by watching everything we do... that we could uncover a terrorist plot or we could discover more criminals," he said. "But is that the kind of society we want to live in?"
UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay recently called on the U.S. government to drop its efforts to prosecute Snowden, saying his revelations served the public interest.
"Those who disclose human rights violations should be protected. We need them," Pillay said in a news conference this week. "We owe a great deal to [Snowden] for revealing this kind of information."
Snowden's interview with the Guardian lasted seven hours. In that time, he described his life in Moscow as being solitary — though likely under surveillance —and laughed at speculations that he might be a spy for the Russian government. He also said he still holds out hope for a fair trial in front of a jury rather than a judge. "I think it would be very difficult to find any 12 Americans in the United States right now who would uniformally agree that the last year's revelations about the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance programs did not serve the public interest," he said.
Government negotiations for Snowden to return home, however, seem to be at a standstill. He recently applied to extend his asylum in Russia and is likely to receive it.