Edward Snowden has implored developers and programmers to build systems which, by their very design, protect users’ privacy. He made this call to action during his virtual appearance at Saturday’s HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) conference in New York, where he was participating in a Google Hangout interview with another famous whistle blower, Daniel Ellsberg.
“You the people, you in this room right now, have both the means and capability to help build a better future by encoding our rights into the programs and protocols upon which we rely every day,” says Snowden. “And that’s what a lot of my future work is going to be involved in, and I hope that you will join me and the Freedom of the Press and every other organisation in making that a reality.”
While encryption technology has become a hot topic in since Snowden first unveiled the extent of the NSA’s prying, it isn’t enough to stop what he calls “association methods”.
“It doesn’t end at encryption, it starts at encryption,” he says. “Encryption protects the content but we forget about associations… Mass surveillance in general is not about surveilling you, it’s not about surveilling me. It’s about surveilling us collectively. It’s about watching the company, for everybody in the country and on a global scale… This is basically a big data program which provides the raw data that can then be analysed, it can be filtered, it can be subjected to rules for example… it says everything you do is being analysed, it’s being weighted, it’s being measured and that’s without regard to whether or not you’ve done anything wrong.”
Snowden believes that dragnet surveillance, “where the government is basically saying we’re going to use warrantless surveillance to collect evidence to then secretly use to get a warrant application,” is a violation of the 4th and 5th amendments. He also describes the analysis of connections between citizens as a “fundamentally un-American” contradiction of the 1st amendment which grants people freedom of association. “If you let go of your rights for a moment, you’ve lost them for a lifetime,” says Snowden. “And that’s why this matters. It’s because it happened, and we didn’t know about it. We weren’t told.”
Technology is an innately neutral force and so logically it empowers democracy. And that is what Snowden is pushing for; he wants developers to consider their own privacy and best interests, and the privacy of their friends and family and community, and build systems which defend this. “Criticise me, hate me, but think about what matters,” he says. “Think about the world you want to live in, and then be part of building that.”