FBI Director Continues His Attack On Technology, Privacy And Encryption

from the not-how-it-works dept

FBI Director James Comey has doubled down on his basic attack on technology and privacy with a speech at the Brookings Institution entitled “Going Dark: Are Technology, Privacy, and Public Safety on a Collision Course.” He admits that he wants “every tool” available to law enforcement, and he’s worried about that darn tech industry for wishing to keep users’ information private. He calls it a “public safety problem.” Others may disagree.

Unfortunately, the law hasn?t kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public safety problem. We call it ?Going Dark,? and what it means is this: Those charged with protecting our people aren?t always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism even with lawful authority. We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so.

We face two overlapping challenges. The first concerns real-time court-ordered interception of what we call ?data in motion,? such as phone calls, e-mail, and live chat sessions. The second challenge concerns court-ordered access to data stored on our devices, such as e-mail, text messages, photos, and videos?or what we call ?data at rest.? And both real-time communication and stored data are increasingly encrypted.

Of course, many of us look at that encryption itself as a public safety issue on the other side. Greater encryption allows people to communicate safely, securely and privately — which is an important public safety consideration. The simple fact is that crimes have been committed throughout human history without the ability of law enforcement to eavesdrop on people. It’s merely an accident of history that so much communication recently has had backdoors and holes by which eavesdropping was even possible. Closing those doors doesn’t mean law enforcement can’t solve crimes, and it’s silly to mandate backdoors when it’s not necessary and can create more problems.

Comey seems particularly annoyed that the tech industry is locking stuff up in response to the Snowden revelations, because he argues, that’s blocking all sorts of other stuff he’d like to have access to:

In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, the prevailing view is that the government is sweeping up all of our communications. That is not true. And unfortunately, the idea that the government has access to all communications at all times has extended?unfairly?to the investigations of law enforcement agencies that obtain individual warrants, approved by judges, to intercept the communications of suspected criminals.

Some believe that the FBI has these phenomenal capabilities to access any information at any time?that we can get what we want, when we want it, by flipping some sort of switch. It may be true in the movies or on TV. It is simply not the case in real life.

It frustrates me, because I want people to understand that law enforcement needs to be able to access communications and information to bring people to justice. We do so pursuant to the rule of law, with clear guidance and strict oversight. But even with lawful authority, we may not be able to access the evidence and the information we need.

Again, there’s an interesting sense of entitlement there. There’s lots of information law enforcement would like to have, and even may legally have the right to have, but which they cannot have. And that’s been true throughout history, and law enforcement has survived and crimes have been stopped and criminals caught and prosecuted. What Comey is advocating here is to make everyone less safe just in case law enforcement wants it. That’s a problem.

Bizarrely, Comey is quite upset that companies are now marketing the fact that they keep you secure.

Encryption isn?t just a technical feature; it?s a marketing pitch. But it will have very serious consequences for law enforcement and national security agencies at all levels. Sophisticated criminals will come to count on these means of evading detection. It?s the equivalent of a closet that can?t be opened. A safe that can?t be cracked. And my question is, at what cost?

The cost of privacy and trust. Which are, you know, kind of important too…

And then he goes back to his simply wrong declaration that this is about making people “above the law.” But that’s not true. There is no legal requirement that this information be available. It’s not above the law at all. Being above the law means ignoring the law and getting away with it. But, to Comey, being above the law is apparently doing stuff that makes the FBI’s job marginally more difficult.

I hope you know that I?m a huge believer in the rule of law. But I also believe that no one in this country should be above or beyond the law. There should be no law-free zone in this country. I like and believe very much that we need to follow the letter of the law to examine the contents of someone?s closet or someone?s cell phone. But the notion that the marketplace could create something that would prevent that closet from ever being opened, even with a properly obtained court order, makes no sense to me.

I think it?s time to ask: Where are we, as a society? Are we no longer a country governed by the rule of law, where no one is above or beyond that law? Are we so mistrustful of government?and of law enforcement?that we are willing to let bad guys walk away…willing to leave victims in search of justice?

And then there’s this: He’s not a scaremonger, but you should be afraid:

I?ve never been someone who is a scaremonger. But I?m in a dangerous business.

And, of course, he wants Congress to step in and fix things for him, making everyone less safe:

We also need a regulatory or legislative fix to create a level playing field, so that all communication service providers are held to the same standard and so that those of us in law enforcement, national security, and public safety can continue to do the job you have entrusted us to do, in the way you would want us to.

A “level field”? Really? The field has been tilted strongly towards the FBI and NSA for well over a decade. It’s only now, with further encryption, that it’s been leveling out…

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Comments on “FBI Director Continues His Attack On Technology, Privacy And Encryption”

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Anonymous Coward says:

There would be no reason to lock everything up had the spying agencies not run amok with it. The idea is that yes, they are indeed vacuuming everything up they can get their fingers on.

These companies offering this are doing so to protect their bottom line. The news has encircled the globe about how much rampant spying and malware to spy is being put out. If they want to remain in business they don’t have much choice but to offer things to protect user privacy.

No one is at fault here but those doing the spying. It has brought about the necessity for this to be done.

That One Guy (profile) says:

And the irony meter just exploded

I hope you know that I’m a huge believer in the rule of law. But I also believe that no one in this country should be above or beyond the law. There should be no law-free zone in this country.

Here’s a hint you obtuse idiot, the reason there’s been an increased interest in encryption is because your fellows in the government do believe themselves above the law, and have been acting accordingly. If you lot had shown an ounce of self-restraint, and not gone completely overboard, with the ‘Collect all the data!’ mentality, people would be a lot less concerned with making sure their communications were secure.

In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, the prevailing view is that the government is sweeping up all of our communications. That is not true.

Technically true, but it’s not for lack of trying. If they could do that, you can bet they absolutely would, what’s stopping them has nothing to do with respect towards the right of the public, or the law, but simple technical issues.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

You missed one of the better lines

Comey said:

There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called ‘back door,’ one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit.

But that isn’t true. We aren’t seeking a back-door approach. We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law. We are completely comfortable with court orders and legal process – front doors that provide the evidence and information we need to investigate crime and prevent terrorist attacks.

I love this quote, because he uses a whole ton of words to say, basically, “I don’t understand what a back door is.”

Here’s a pro-tip for you, Comey: whether or not it is used with “clarity, transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law” has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it’s a back door.

Anonymous Coward says:

Windows Going Dark

In other news, law enforcement is concerned about the large number of windows “going dark” owing to the installation of devices called, appropriately enough, “window blinds” because they “blind” law enforcement. How is law enforcement going to combat crime in buildings if they can’t even see in?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Windows Going Dark

I remember an article about forcing pawnshops and the like to allow real-time access to police to their security camera(s), but I think this is the first I’ve heard of that bit of insanity being pushed for homes.

While it honestly wouldn’t surprise me(disgust yes, surprise no), you have a citation for that one?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Windows Going Dark

I too have heard proposals about law enforcement being allowed access to retailer’s surveillance systems. I can’t speak for any ‘mom-&-pop’ but the few chain retailers I’ve dealt with will NOT allow anybody outside their chain on their network. Even their own vendors and contractors are not allowed access. Given the recent payment card breaches I can understand why.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Windows Going Dark

I actually thought it was an exaggeration example… I don’t know why I am surprised anymore.
Worst part is that I love technology… it’s my job and my hobby, but these people make me fear the future, because there is no question in my mind that they will misuse it in every way possible.
Far in the future scenario: Why catch criminals when you can just program the nanobots keeping us healthy, to make sure everyone behaves?
Whether it will be by extensive surveillance, fear or mind-control, we would end up drones if it were up to these people.
It sounds very paranoid and like science fiction, but is there doubt anymore that “law-enforcement” would at least try to misuse that kind of technology?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Windows Going Dark

“Worst part is that I love technology… it’s my job and my hobby, but these people make me fear the future, because there is no question in my mind that they will misuse it in every way possible. “

I struggle with this as well. The compromise that I’ve made is that there are certain specific technologies that I have a great deal of interest in but have quit working on because they have an unusually high chance of being abused. Things like biometrics, etc. I have, and will continue to, refuse job offers and contracts that deal with these sorts of things.

Applesauce says:

Smart toilets are here!

Smart toilets, long available in Japan, are now available in the US. If you’re unfamiliar with them, google them.
Some will analyze your waste. Some have wifi connectivity, and some have already been hacked.

If you think Comey and his NSA partners would show restraint and NOT want access to your toilet, you have not been paying attention. They have already demonstrated an unlimited appetite for gathering your private data. This is one more opportunity.

Anonymous Coward says:

This FBI Director seems unaware that invasive surveillance has always been a zero-sum gain in the long term. The FBI’s ability to tap telephones never stopped organized crime, which simply adapted to these tactics by speaking in code or using random pay phones. Any super-duper secret eavesdropping method anyone can possibly devise will only ever work once, since nailing someone for a crime means revealing the evidence against them in a public courtroom for all to see. Then authorities will need another privacy-busting tactic, then another, in an endless pursuit.

The constant quest for technological solutions has been a distraction that has kept authorities from pursuing the kind of old fashioned shoe-leather investigative work that has always produced results.

Todd Shore (profile) says:

Law Enforcement thinks they are the law

Law Enforcements sees themselves and what they do AS the law.
Which is why they never can understand it when the citizenry criticizes law enforcement for itself acting above the law. The Government asks, “How can we be above ourselves? These wacko people even understand basic logic”.

This is the true problem with “governmemt entitlements”. The government feels entitled. The courts certainly haven’t helped with their “compelling interest” rulings. I do not ever recall seeing “compelling interest” in the Constitution, yet a LOT of case and legislative law has been built on it even around amendments that specifically include “Congress shall make no law”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hidden chambers

You have always had the right to build a hidden chamber, write a diary in an obscure language and hide it in unknown location, and there was no requirement to reveal it to the government.

Even with warrants and subpoenas, the government had no inherent right to discover things it couldn’t prove.

Data is just data, and if it can’t prove who owns it, or by which process it has been generated, I fail to see why a lawfull access regime ought to grant the government any ‘right’ to data it does not have in the physical world.

If the government has no right to compel a third party to interpret every paper document a power otherwise constrained by the Fourth and Fifth Amendment, it should neither have any power to access digital information.

The FBI’s real concern is therefore that builtin encryption sometimes reinforces preexisting Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.

If a suspect’s phone or computer is encrypted, it doesn’t hinder legitimate law enforcement as long as the police either has probable cause, gets a warrant or asks for consent.

If the police lacks probable cause, or can’t get a warrant or the owner refuses consent, law enforcement is not deprived of anything to which it should be entitled.

The only situation where encryption subtracts anything from what the government can legitimately obtain by complying with the Fourth Amendment should already fall within the exclusionary rule and not be admitted as evidence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mr.Comey, I’m sure that if you’re sincere in your position & frustration with the recent events regarding encryption, you must at least see how the public ( “us” from your point of view) is hesitant to take what you say at face value. Especially with the evident lack of oversight on multiple levels, how can we not be mistrustful of the government’s motives when “public safety” is used as precendent for questionable practices/legislation?

If you cannot understand that, I would recommend you come to terms with your frustration.

Applesauce says:

Coney is a lawyer

He views it as an adversarial process.

His job is to win (against those he considers criminals). He thinks it is his job to zealously catch and put away the “bad” people, using every tool he can get his hands on.

He believes it is somebody else’s job to protect your rights, and if those somebodies do their job, the system will work.

But those of us who think the first duty of government is to safeguard our rights, the system isn’t working.

Anonymous Coward says:

It seems to me that the core problem is, the definition of “crime” has changed. Used to be, “crime” meant doing something violently coercive or fraudulent to someone. If there was no fraud or coercion, there was no crime.

The FBI isn’t interested in that at all, at all. In this new world, all that’s criminal is speech. If there’s no speech, there’s nothing that can be prosecuted: regardless of how many coercive or fraudulent actions occurred. If you don’t discuss your child abduction/rape on the telephone, it didn’t occur. If your terrorist cell doesn’t plot on the internet, it’s free to do whatever it wishes.

In this new world, nobody’s charged with a crime. They’re charged with the much more serious offense of “conspiracy to commit” a crime. Whether or not the crime actually occurred — is irrelevant.

BlueLightMemory says:

Cry Baby Comey

It’s a laugh watching Comey cry about encrytion that blocks law enforcement’s creeping eyes.

I love using encrytion and I will continue to use encryption no matter what Comey or the other criminals in government say. I fully believe in my 4th amendment rights.

Comey, do us all a favor and stfu and start cleaning out your own house called the FBI.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If you are presented with a warrant, you are legally required to give law enforcement access to the property that is specified in the warrant. If the warrant specifies that you have to provide the key, then you do.

This is how it should be, and encrypting the contents of phones ensures that this is how it is with phones as well. This is why Comey’s statements are so despicable. He’s straight-up lying, in the most craven and logically faulty way possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

We also need a regulatory or legislative fix to create a level playing field, so that all communication service providers are held to the same standard and so that those of us in law enforcement, national security, and public safety can continue to do the job you have entrusted us to do, in the way you would want us to.

I welcome Mr. Comey’s newfound commitment to ECPA reform, the USA Freedom Act (original non-watered down version), and his upcoming submission of sworn criminal complaints for known criminals in the surveillance state apparatus, starting with Director of National Intelligence admitted liar James Clapper.

Upholding the Constitution is a core part of the job we entrusted him to do…

Mike (user link) says:

He used a similar analogy on 60 Minutes this weekend, basically having encryption was like a car trunk that never opened. I wrote about why this analogy is complete BS on my site. (http://mikemcbrideonline.com/2014/10/fbi-director-james-comey-gets-phone-encryption-completely-wrong/) In a nutshell, law enforcement with a warrant can demand that I open the trunk to my car, they don’t get to sneak into my garage and open it with their magic key. Why would a phone be any different? Serve me with the warrant, and demand that I give you the key to decrypt the phone, if I refuse, I am in contempt of a court order. Why is this so difficult for the director of the FBI to understand?

KRA says:

He doth protest too much

Corporations run the government for all practical purposes. US business interests were hurt by the revelation that they colluded with the NSA to hand over everything we do electronically.

I wonder if this is just another lie we’re being told. I wonder if the tech companies are still enabling warrantless collection of all our data–as they have done for years–and have cooked up this fiction of protecting it so they can keep making money. And I wonder if, as part of the deal, the government is faking outrage about our fictional new privacy to try to make us believe it’s real.

PopeRatzo (profile) says:

The money quote

“There’s lots of information law enforcement would like to have, and even may legally have the right to have, but which they cannot have. And that’s been true throughout history, and law enforcement has survived and crimes have been stopped and criminals caught and prosecuted.”

Best, truest thing I’ve read on the internet today.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's a simple reflexive reaction-

to the abuse our governments have heaped upon us all. There is nothing new here, some criminals will hide their plans and booty from you and have doing so forever. Get off your soap box, untwist your panties and get to work. Your whiney rant is no more valid then your illegal and corrupt practices, only the result thereof.

Anonymous Coward says:

Comey Said: “I hope you know that I’m a huge believer in the rule of law.”

This statement makes no sense to me in the context of his speech. The law says that encryption is perfectly legal, thus encryption falls well within the “rule of law”.

So he believes in the rule of law, except where the rule of law prevents him from accessing everyone’s data?


Jamie (user link) says:

Windows Going Dark

Personally, I can’t wait until I don’t have to think for myself and have my every move decided and controlled by government computers. The Borg are pretty bad-ass, nobody would object to that right? Resistance is Futile.

There is definitely going to be a civil war over this, add to it the civil war over immigration, and the religious muslim vs christian war we’ve got coming then I reckon post-apocolyptic eutopia is just around the corner for those hardy enough to survive the interim 🙂

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is brought up a lot when government spying is mentioned, though other than mindless Google hate or an attempt at misdirection I can’t figure out why, but the standard responses are as follows:

1. You can choose not to give Google information, by not using their services and/or blocking their services. You do not however have the same luxury when it comes to the government.
2. Google doesn’t have the authority to arrest you or throw you in jail.

Anonymous Coward says:

“It frustrates me, because I want people to understand that law enforcement needs to be able to access communications and information to bring people to justice.”

Except corruption right, boses, collegues, just generally to big to jail type folks, you know, the ones runing and influencing and creating the 100 and ten percent “just” laws……….do you see the freaking problem

Anonymous Coward says:


“If you are presented with a warrant, you are legally required to give law enforcement access to the property that is specified in the warrant. If the warrant
specifies that you have to provide the key, then you do.”

No, you are not. Why are you spreading lies and misinformation?

A warrant can’t overcome the Fifth Amendment.

The only situation wherein you can be compelled to decrypt data for the government is if it’s a foregone conclusion that you is able to decrypt.

Anonymous4 Areason says:

Why Privacy Really Matters

Glenn Greenwald at TED Global 2014, had this to say on Why privacy matters…

“There is an entire genre of YouTube videos devoted to an experience which I am certain that everyone in this room has had. It entails an individual who, thinking they’re alone, engages in some expressive behavior — wild singing, gyrating dancing, some mild sexual
activity — only to discover that, in fact, they are not alone, that there is a person watching and lurking, the discovery of which causes them to immediately cease what they were doing in horror. The sense of shame and humiliation in their face is palpable. It’s the sense of, ‘This is something I’m willing to do only if no one else is watching.’

This is the crux of the work on which I have been singularly focused for the last 16 months, the question of why privacy matters, a question that has arisen in the context of a global debate, enabled by the revelations of Edward Snowden that the United States and its partners, unbeknownst to the entire world, has converted the Internet, once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democratization, into an unprecedented zone of mass, indiscriminate surveillance.

There is a very common sentiment that arises in this debate, even among people who are uncomfortable with mass surveillance, which says that there is no real harm that comes from this large-scale invasion because only people who are engaged in bad acts have a reason to want to hide and to care about their privacy.

This worldview is implicitly grounded in the proposition that there are two kinds of people in the world, good people and bad people. Bad people are those who plot terrorist attacks or who engage in violent criminality and therefore have reasons to want to hide what they’re doing, have reasons to care about their privacy.

But by contrast, good people are people who go to work, come home, raise their children, watch television. They use the Internet not to plot bombing attacks but to read the news or exchange recipes or to plan their kids’ Little League games, and those people are doing nothing wrong and therefore have nothing to hide and no reason to fear the government monitoring them.

The people who are actually saying that are engaged in a very extreme act of self deprecation. What they’re really saying is, ‘I have agreed to make myself such a harmless and unthreatening and uninteresting person that I actually don’t fear having the government know what it is that I’m doing.’

This mindset has found what I think is its purest expression in a 2009 interview with the longtime CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, who, when asked about all the different ways his company is causing invasions of privacy for hundreds of millions of people around the world, said this: He said, “If you’re doing something that you don’t want other people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Now, there’s all kinds of things to say about that mentality, the first of which is that the people who say that, who say that privacy isn’t really important, they don’t actually believe it, and the way you know that they don’t actually believe it is that while they say with their words that privacy doesn’t matter, with their actions, they take all kinds of steps to safeguard their privacy.

They put passwords on their email and their social media accounts, they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, all steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider their private realm and knowing what it is that they don’t want other people to know.

The very same Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, ordered his employees at Google to cease speaking with the online Internet magazine CNET after CNET published an article full of personal, private information about Eric Schmidt, which it obtained exclusively through Google searches and using other Google products. (Laughter)

This same division can be seen with the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who in an infamous interview in 2010 pronounced that privacy is no longer a “social norm.” Last year, Mark Zuckerberg and his new wife purchased not only their own house but also all four adjacent houses in Palo Alto for a total of 30 million dollars in order to ensure that they enjoyed a zone of privacy that prevented other people from monitoring what they do in their personal lives.

Over the last 16 months, as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, “I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide.”

I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.”

Not a single person has taken me up on that offer. I check and — (Applause) I check that email account religiously all the time. It’s a very desolate place.

And there’s a reason for that, which is that we as human beings, even those of us who in words disclaim the importance of our own privacy, instinctively understand the profound importance of it.

It is true that as human beings, we’re social animals, which means we have a need for other people to know what we’re doing and saying and thinking, which is why we voluntarily publish information about ourselves online. But equally essential to what it means to be a free and fulfilled human being is to have a place that we can go and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people.

There’s a reason why we seek that out, and our reason is that all of us — not just terrorists and criminals, all of us — have things to hide. There are all sorts of things that we do and think that we’re willing to tell our physician or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse or our best friend that we would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn.

We make judgments every single day about the kinds of things that we say and think and do that we’re willing to have other people know, and the kinds of things that we say and think and do that we don’t want anyone else to know about.

People can very easily in words claim that they don’t value their privacy, but their actions negate the authenticity of that belief.

Now, there’s a reason why privacy is so craved universally and instinctively. It isn’t just a reflexive movement like breathing air or drinking water. The reason is that when we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. The range of behavioral options that we consider when we think we’re being watched severely reduce.

This is just a fact of human nature that has been recognized in social science and in literature and in religion and in virtually every field of discipline. There are dozens of psychological studies that prove that when somebody knows that they might be watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant.

Human shame is a very powerful motivator, as is the desire to avoid it, and that’s the reason why people, when they’re in a state of being watched, make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.

This realization was exploited most powerfully for pragmatic ends by the 18th- century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who set out to resolve an important problem ushered in by the industrial age, where, for the first time, institutions had become so large and centralized that they were no longer able to monitor and therefore control each one of their individual members, and the solution that he devised was an architectural design originally intended to be implemented in prisons that he called the panopticon, the primary attribute of which was the construction of an enormous tower in the center of the institution where whoever controlled the institution could at any moment watch any of the inmates, although they couldn’t watch all of them at all times.

And crucial to this design was that the inmates could not actually see into the panopticon, into the tower, and so they never knew if they were being watched or even when. And what made him so excited about this discovery was that that would mean that the prisoners would have to assume that they were being watched at any given moment, which would be the ultimate enforcer for obedience and compliance.

The 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault realized that that model could be used not just for prisons but for every institution that seeks to control human behavior: schools, hospitals, factories, workplaces. And what he said was that this mindset, this framework discovered by Bentham, was the key means of societal control for modern, Western societies, which no longer need the overt weapons of tyranny — punishing or imprisoning or killing dissidents, or legally compelling loyalty to a particular party — because mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle though much more effective means of fostering compliance with social norms or with social orthodoxy, much more effective than brute force could ever be.

The most iconic work of literature about surveillance and privacy is the George Orwell novel “1984,” which we all learn in school, and therefore it’s almost become a cliche. In fact, whenever you bring it up in a debate about surveillance, people instantaneously dismiss it as inapplicable, and what they say is, “Oh, well in ‘1984,’ there were monitors in people’s homes, they were being watched at every given moment, and that has nothing to do with the surveillance state that we face.”

That is an actual fundamental misapprehension of the warnings that Orwell issued in “1984.” The warning that he was issuing was about a surveillance state not that monitored everybody at all times, but where people were aware that they could be monitored at any given moment.

Here is how Orwell’s narrator, Winston Smith, described the surveillance system that they faced: “There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” He went on to say, “At any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized.”

The Abrahamic religions similarly posit that there’s an invisible, all-knowing authority who, because of its omniscience, always watches whatever you’re doing, which means you never have a private moment, the ultimate enforcer for obedience to its dictates.

What all of these seemingly disparate works recognize, the conclusion that they all reach, is that a society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity and obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, the most overt to the most subtle, craves that system.

Conversely, even more importantly, it is a realm of privacy, the ability to go somewhere where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us, in which creativity and exploration and dissent exclusively reside, and that is the reason why, when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.

The last point I want to observe about this mindset, the idea that only people who are doing something wrong have things to hide and therefore reasons to care about privacy, is that it entrenches two very destructive messages, two destructive lessons, the first of which is that the only people who care about privacy, the only people who will seek out privacy, are by definition bad people.

This is a conclusion that we should have all kinds of reasons for avoiding, the most important of which is that when you say, “somebody who is doing bad things,” you probably mean things like plotting a terrorist attack or engaging in violent criminality, a much narrower conception of what people who wield power mean when they say, “doing bad things.” For them, “doing bad things” typically means doing something that poses meaningful challenges to the exercise of our own power.

The other really destructive and, I think, even more insidious lesson that comes from accepting this mindset is there’s an implicit bargain that people who accept this mindset have accepted, and that bargain is this: If you’re willing to render yourself sufficiently harmless, sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then and only then can you be free of the dangers of surveillance. It’s only those who are dissidents, who challenge power, who have something to worry about. There are all kinds of reasons why we should want to avoid that lesson as well.

You may be a person who, right now, doesn’t want to engage in that behavior, but at some point in the future you might. Even if you’re somebody who decides that you never want to, the fact that there are other people who are willing to and able to resist and be adversarial to those in power — dissidents and journalists and activists and a whole range of others — is something that brings us all collective good that we should want to preserve. Equally critical is that the measure of how free a society is is not how it treats its good, obedient, compliant citizens, but how it treats its dissidents and those who resist orthodoxy.

But the most important reason is that a system of mass surveillance suppresses our own freedom in all sorts of ways. It renders off-limits all kinds of behavioral choices without our even knowing that it’s happened. The renowned socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg once said, “He who does not move does not notice his chains.”

We can try and render the chains of mass surveillance invisible or undetectable, but the constraints that it imposes on us do not become any less potent.

Thank you very much.


Thank you.

Bruno Giussani: Glenn, thank you. The case is rather convincing, I have to say, but I want to bring you back to the last 16 months and to Edward Snowden for a few questions, if you don’t mind. The first one is personal to you. We have all read about the arrest of your partner, David Miranda in London, and other difficulties, but I assume that in terms of personal engagement and risk, that the pressure on you is not that easy to take on the biggest sovereign organizations in the world. Tell us a little bit about that.

Glenn Greenwald: You know, I think one of the things that happens is that people’s courage in this regard gets contagious, and so although I and the other journalists with whom I was working were certainly aware of the risk — the United States continues to be the most powerful country in the world and doesn’t appreciate it when you disclose thousands of their secrets on the Internet at will — seeing somebody who is a 29-year old ordinary person who grew up in a very ordinary environment exercise the degree of principled courage that Edward Snowden risked, knowing that he was going to go to prison for the rest of his life or that his life would unravel, inspired me and inspired other journalists and inspired, I think, people around the world, including future whistleblowers, to realize that they can engage in that kind of behavior as well.

BG: I’m curious about your relationship with Ed Snowden, because you have spoken with him a lot, and you certainly continue doing so, but in your book, you never call him Edward, nor Ed, you say “Snowden.” How come?

GG: You know, I’m sure that’s something for a team of psychologists to examine. (Laughter) I don’t really know. The reason I think that, one of the important objectives that he actually had, one of his, I think, most important tactics, was that he knew that one of the ways to distract attention from the substance of the revelations would be to try and personalize the focus on him, and for that reason, he stayed out of the media. He tried not to ever have his personal life subject to examination, and so I think calling him Snowden is a way of just identifying him as this important historical actor rather than trying to personalize him in a way that might distract attention from the substance.

Moderator: So his revelations, your analysis, the work of other journalists, have really developed the debate, and many governments, for example, have reacted, including in Brazil, with projects and programs to reshape a little bit the design of the Internet, etc. There are a lot of things going on in that sense. But I’m wondering, for you personally, what is the endgame? At what point will you think, well, actually, we’ve succeeded in moving the dial?

GG: Well, I mean, the endgame for me as a journalist is very simple, which is to make sure that every single document that’s newsworthy and that ought to be disclosed ends up being disclosed, and that secrets that should never have been kept in the first place end up uncovered. To me, that’s the essence of journalism and that’s what I’m committed to doing. As somebody who finds mass surveillance odious for all the reasons I just talked about and a lot more, I mean, I look at this as work that will never end until governments around the world are no longer able to subject entire populations to monitoring and surveillance unless they convince some court or some entity that the person they’ve targeted has actually done something wrong. To me, that’s the way that privacy can be rejuvenated.

BG: So Snowden is very, as we’ve seen at TED, is very articulate in presenting and portraying himself as a defender of democratic values and democratic principles. But then, many people really find it difficult to believe that those are his only motivations. They find it difficult to believe that there was no money involved, that he didn’t sell some of those secrets, even to China and to Russia, which are clearly not the best friends of the United States right now. And I’m sure many people in the room are wondering the same question. Do you consider it possible there is that part of Snowden we’ve not seen yet?

GG: No, I consider that absurd and idiotic. (Laughter) If you wanted to, and I know you’re just playing devil’s advocate, but if you wanted to sell secrets to another country, which he could have done and become extremely rich doing so, the last thing you would do is take those secrets and give them to journalists and ask journalists to publish them, because it makes those secrets worthless.

People who want to enrich themselves do it secretly by selling secrets to the government, but I think there’s one important point worth making, which is, that accusation comes from people in the U.S. government, from people in the media who are loyalists to these various governments, and I think a lot of times when people make accusations like that about other people — “Oh, he can’t really be doing this for principled reasons, he must have some corrupt, nefarious reason” — they’re saying a lot more about themselves than they are the target of their accusations, because — (Applause) — those people, the ones who make that accusation, they themselves never act for any reason other than corrupt reasons, so they assume that everybody else is plagued by the same disease of soullessness as they are, and so that’s the assumption. (Applause)

BG: Glenn, thank you very much.

GG: Thank you very much.

BG: Glenn Greenwald. (Applause)

[ https://www.ted.com/talks/glenn_greenwald_why_privacy_matters/transcript ]

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