America’s spy agencies are so focused on “mass surveillance” that they have missed clues about terrorist incidents, such as last year’s Boston Marathon bombing and an attempted attack on a jetliner on Christmas in 2009, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden said Monday.
In an hour-long video discussion hosted by the South by Southwest music, film and technology conference in Austin, Snowden, who is living in asylum in an undisclosed location in Russia, asserted that the National Security Agency’s efforts to collect information in bulk have backfired.
“We’ve actually had a tremendous intelligence failure because . . . we’re monitoring everybody’s communications instead of suspects’ communications” — a situation, he asserts, that has “caused us to miss” intelligence.
Snowden, who faces criminal espionage charges for disclosing top-secret intelligence documents to several journalists, has prompted a global debate about surveillance and forced the U.S. government to be more transparent about once-classified programs.
His actions have drawn harsh criticism from senior U.S. officials, who contend that the leaks have put national security at risk, as well as approval from technologists and privacy advocates, who say the leaks have forced tech companies to make their systems more secure.
“Let me be clear about one thing,” said American Civil Liberties Union principal technologist Christopher Soghoian, one of two ACLU representatives who took part in the discussion with Snowden: “His disclosures have improved Internet security.”
Snowden, who was using a Google videoconferencing program that ran through seven proxy servers to mask his location, used much of his talk to urge companies and technologists to develop and adopt easier-to-use encryption. “It has to happen seamlessly,” he said.
Encryption, he said, enabled him to protect the information he took from the NSA, where he worked until last spring. U.S. officials “still have no idea of what documents were provided to journalists, what they have and don’t have,” he said, “because encryption works.”
He also said that neither the Chinese nor the Russian governments possess any of the information he took. Snowden spent a short time in Hong Kong before arriving in Moscow last year.
The intelligence failures Snowden alleged are not clear-cut. The Christmas 2009 bomb attempt involved a failure to connect and understand the information agencies possessed. In the Boston case, the FBI followed up on a tip from Russian authorities about a suspect but found insufficient grounds to open a criminal investigation.
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the outgoing director of the NSA, has vigorously defended the agency’s activities. “The press has articulated them as the villains, when what they’re doing is protecting this country and doing what we have asked them to do,” he told Congress last month. “And if they’ve made a mistake, we find out, oh, they reported that three years ago to the courts, to Congress and to the administration.”
The documents shared with journalists by Snowden, a youthful-looking 30-year-old, have resulted in reports about the NSA’s collection activities overseas and in the United States.
Last October, for example, The Washington Post reported that the NSA had infiltrated the overseas links between Google and Yahoo data centers. In the wake of that story, both companies rushed to say that they were encrypting the links between their data centers, and Yahoo announced that it would apply encryption by default to connections with users, something it had resisted for years.
If “you encrypt your hardware and your network,” Snowden said, “it becomes very difficult for any mass surveillance.” He added: “You’ll still be vulnerable to targeted surveillance. If there’s a warrant for you, the NSA will still get you.”
Said Soghoian: “The goal here isn’t to blind the NSA. It isn’t to stop the government from going after legitimate targets. The goal here is to make it so they cannot spy on innocent people [just] because they can.”
During the videoconference, an image of the U.S. Constitution provided a background for Snowden. The session was conducted by ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner, Snowden’s legal adviser.
Asked by Wizner whether the price he has paid for his disclosures has been worth it, Snowden said: “Regardless of what’s happening to me, this is something we have a right to know. I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale. The interpretation of the Constitution has been changed in secret from ‘no unreasonable search and seizure’ to: ‘Hey, any seizure is fine. Just don’t search it.’ That’s something the public ought to know about.”