Edward Snowden on Surveillance and Free Speech

In an event sponsored by the Knight First Amendment Institute, the former intelligence contractor talks about the White House whistleblower and more.

Caroline Harting
November 08, 2019

On October 29, 2019, Knight First Amendment Institute’s Jameel Jaffer and The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin spoke to Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who leaked top-secret documents about the National Security Agency to the press in 2013. Snowden spoke via Skype about the rise of mass surveillance, his thoughts on the recent whistleblower case and how we should protect our privacy. The event at The Forum was open to the public and well attended.  

In his introductory remarks, Alex Abdo, litigation director at Knight, explained why the institute decided to hold this event:

Edward Snowden’s decision to give journalists a trove of documents related to surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency raises a number of weighty free speech questions. What’s the proper scope of government secrecy? How should a democracy ensure that the public has the information it needs to hold those in power to account? When, if ever, should we rely on whistleblowers to inform the public about governmental abuses? What is the appropriate breadth of the government’s surveillance power?

Privacy is a precondition of free speech, free inquiry, association and dissent. In other words, pervasive surveillance is a threat to privacy, but also free speech.

Here’s what Snowden said:

Today’s Surveillance Isn’t What It Used to Be

  • Traditionally, intelligence collection focused on a very narrow and select group of targets. [The intelligence community] had physical surveillance where teams of officers would follow an individual 24 hours a day. This was an elaborate effort that created a natural restraint on the amount of surveillance that the government could apply to society.
  • But technology changed at the same time our politics were changing [around 9/11]. What this meant is that through the Internet and the rise of the smartphone and social media … instead of having 10 officers follow one person, you could have one officer follow 100 people.

The Whistleblower and the Truth About That Call With Ukraine 

  • Because someone leaked to Congress that this [whistleblower] claim existed, and then this disclosure made it to the newspapers… it [became] a national scandal. The White House [realized that] it couldn’t hold the information back anymore.
  • Once people know that something wrong is going on, they want to find out the truth.
  • A unique characteristic of this case is that the whistleblower doesn’t indict the system [like I did], but only an individual. I think this might be the first case where the process actually works.

Who Will Protect Us From Mass Surveillance?

  • It’s too pat to say that the law or new technology or a new president is going to save us.
  • We could have a renaissance of human and civil rights in the United States, but it would have no meaning beyond the borders of the United States.
  • The Internet is a global system. You could be connecting to a server down the street or a server in Hong Kong, and that happens invisibly.
  • Law is important, rights are important, but we need to have an ecosystem of rights that involve things like protocols for encryption that can protect our privacy against the worst excesses of government or when the law doesn’t protect you at all, like in the case of a Chinese or a Russian dissident when you can’t rely on the courts.
  • We need neutral international systems of arbitration and a certain set of protections that we can provide to everyone, everywhere.


Watch the full conversation: