Edward Snowden: Why Does Online Privacy Matter? Edward Snowden revealed government programs that collected our private data. Today, he says private corporations have become just as intrusive—but without the restraints placed on government.
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Edward Snowden: Why Does Online Privacy Matter?

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Edward Snowden: Why Does Online Privacy Matter?

Edward Snowden: Why Does Online Privacy Matter?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today - ideas about writing the real-life rules for living online, especially when it comes to protecting our privacy.

Hello, Ed?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I can hear you.

ZOMORODI: Hey, Ed, it's Manoush in New York. Can you hear me?

SNOWDEN: I can. I can hear you well. How are you?

ZOMORODI: I'm good. I'm glad to be talking to you again. I interviewed you a couple years ago...


ZOMORODI: I'm just kind of curious before we start. Like, what is your life like right now? I read in one interview that you take care to avoid being recognized in public. But nowadays, you said everyone's too busy staring at their phones to give you a second glance.

SNOWDEN: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, it's one of those unexpected ironies and, in this case, a welcome one. As you say, no one's looking for me other than the CIA. In day-to-day life, people don't recognize me because they're not paying attention.

ZOMORODI: This is Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked confidential information about government surveillance programs in 2013. He spoke to us over video chat from his home in Moscow where he was given asylum after he spoke out about those programs.

SNOWDEN: I came to understand that this was not only a violation of the laws as written in the United States, which, by the way, federal courts have since agreed with, but more fundamentally, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This was a fundamental violation of the right to privacy, not just for every American but everyone around the world.

ZOMORODI: But since those leaks, Edward hasn't just spoken out about government overreach but also about what's being called surveillance capitalism - basically the access that the tech giants like Facebook and Google have to your personal information.

SNOWDEN: And the companies go, look, it's fine for us. The government is restrained by the Fourth Amendment but the Fourth Amendment only restricts the government - right? - the state government, the federal government. It doesn't bind private companies. Why would it be OK for private companies to do something so intrusive, so violative of our basic rights? Now, this is the central point. Are people aware of the extent of the intrusion? Are people aware of what is happening? And is it necessary? Is it something they consented to? And I think for the vast majority of people, the answer is no.

ZOMORODI: OK. Walk me through what it looks like, though, for the average person, like, regular people who use these platforms all day long and don't always think about or even know about the repercussions of having their data and information collected.

SNOWDEN: That's precisely identifying the correct problem. When Facebook is sort of grinding down your privacy, you don't see it. And although you will feel it, you won't feel it for years. And this is what's really dangerous about the new sort of model of surveillance capitalism. When you sign up for an account, suddenly you get all the cat videos. You get all of the connection. You get all of this wonderful experience. But then, you know, six months on, six years on, you have not seen what happened as these companies have quietly created perfect records of everything you've done, everywhere you've gone, everything you've clicked, everything you've liked, how long you've stayed on a page, you know, when you had to scroll up to reread a section. All of that is captured, and they use this to model ways to influence your behavior to actually shape and manipulate the decisions you make as a human being.

And then they sell this capability or rather at least rent this capability. Facebook says they don't sell data, which is absurd because what they're doing is they're collecting all of the data and then they're selling the use of the influence they can derive from this data to the highest bidder, right? And what they're selling is access to your eyeballs. What they're selling is access to your mind. And then they go, well, ok, yes, all of this data is being collected, but it's just data, right? It is fairly benign.

But the reality is all of this manipulation and computation of this data is not for its own sake. It's not academic research. The only reason they collect this data - the only reason they care about this at all is because it's data about people. It's you being exploited, and you don't see it happening. If you saw that and you could just tap a little icon that says, yeah, no thanks, I would rather that not happen, everyone in the country would press that button.

ZOMORODI: Would they, though? Because I think they're so used to getting what they get when they wake up and they turn on their phone immediately because it's right next to them and the phone tells them exactly where they need to be that day. It gets them in touch with their mom, their dad, all the people in their family. They know - they don't even have to get out of bed to do a business call. It tells them what the weather's going to be. I mean, we have come to depend on all those updates going on all night long while we sleep because they make our waking hours possible. We are living in a connected world where these companies, I think, would say, well, why do you think it's free that you get all that information? And how the heck do you expect it to be so personalized if we don't know you?

SNOWDEN: Well, no, this is a great point, and I think it's half correct. There is a presumption underlying in there that these capabilities would not be possible without spying on everyone all the time. And that's simply false. That is entirely a profit-making activity on the point of the companies. And in many cases, this is beyond what's necessary for their essential business purposes. For example, AT&T has been storing all of our movements in the United States - what cell site - they call it CSLI, cell-site location information - for every handset, every customer, everybody who's not even their customer but happens to be connected to one of their towers as they go through traffic. Going back to 2009, they're storing this. They have the last 10 years of your movements, and everyone you know, more or less.

And here's the thing - they sell that as a service to law enforcement agencies without a warrant. They don't have to go to court and say, you know, we need a warrant for this particular person at this particular time. They can do it on much lower authorities, like subpoenas and things like that. So what's more - that's just this location information. What about your actual calling records? I will tell you from having worked in intelligence, calling records are a proxy for what's called a person's social graph.


SNOWDEN: This is everyone you know. This is everyone you care about. This is everyone you've just interacted with. And from the frequency of calls, you can tell who matters the most to this person or who they talk to the most frequently. When you combine this with location information, you can go, well, who's sleeping with this person? Who goes to the same home that they go to, right? Who travels with them? Where do their - where are their children and, you know, all of these things based on what we call co-traveler tracking, right? When you see phones moving in tandem from cell site to cell site throughout the day, you can infer all of these things. Well, that is a terrifying thing, but that's the state of play today.

ZOMORODI: But I think most people listening are like, yeah, that sounds bad, but you know what? I got to be on Google Drive because that's how my company works. And Facebook is the only way I can find out what time my soccer team is meeting for practice. And I've signed up for these things, and, like, I heard - I read somewhere that privacy was dead anyway. And this is the digital era. And I guess, like, what I've struggled to explain to people is, like, just because you don't say you need privacy doesn't mean that somebody else doesn't need it if they are of an ethnic minority or religious minority or sexual orientation or whatever else. But also, like, isn't it human to have thoughts that other people don't know about, to have conversations with yourself? And they can be as rude or mean or unkind or even violent. But the point is, if you don't act on them, that's OK. It's your mind. It's your brain. That's the pure definition of privacy to me. And I really struggle to explain why - what that means to people. They're like, what are you even talking about?

SNOWDEN: OK. Well, there were about 12 questions in there.

ZOMORODI: Sorry about that.

SNOWDEN: (Laughter) So I'm going to try to take...

ZOMORODI: Yeah, I...

SNOWDEN: ...A couple. All of this goes to that central point about the illusion of consent. When people go, look, I have to be connected to, you know, Google Drive or I've got a Gmail account or I need to be registered on LinkedIn to get a job or I need to be on this to file my taxes or I have to be on Facebook because there's a meeting or an event or whatever, this is precisely illustrating the illusion of consent. You cannot consent to something that is not a choice. And many of these technical services are intentionally designed to be monopolies, to exploit what called the network effect, particularly in secure messengers, things like Whatsapp or Facebook itself, which is not secure at all, so that the only way you can talk to someone or the only way you can read this is that you must use this service. And if you must use this or that, if you are reliant on this or that, and there are no effective or equivalent alternatives, then it was never a choice at all.

ZOMORODI: Right. And it's that lack of choice that essentially forces us to give up our privacy.

SNOWDEN: Yeah. You know, so many people - the - Eric Schmidt, former head of Google, argued that, you know, privacy is dead, that culture's changed, that we don't care about this anymore, that it's not right. And it's exactly as you said. You know, what is privacy really about? What privacy is about is actually power. The political argument that we get here all the time is if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. And for us to hear that today, to begin with, should just, you know, raise the hairs on the back of our neck a little bit and go, why do we have any rights? What are rights for? If we're in a democracy - right? - a lot of people think, well, the democracy is constituted to represent the will of the majority. And the majority doesn't really need things like privacy protections because the majority decides the things that can and cannot be said. The majority decides literally what is popular, what is unpopular. What's scandalous and what's not, right? So the majority is never really at risk in the same way from violations of privacy.

Privacy is not about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. And what you are protecting are the differences within society because that's where we get progress from. We get it from the strange idea, the - even heretical idea. Something different that someone says that the rest of us are like, ooh, not sure I am with that, but we protect that space for change. What we're doing is we're protecting the minority against the majority. And that is what every right accomplishes.

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, you know, private property - all of these things are about having something for you. The due process rights - right? - the right to a trial, why - where does that derive from? What does it mean? What is it establishing? It is recognizing that you have a right to your self, which society, the government, the other, the neighbor, whoever, must overcome before they can march you off to prison, right? And this is what the rights are about. They're establishing a baseline fundamental protection. They're intentionally making the life of government and power more difficult to ensure a level of agency for the individual, right? Privacy is the fountainhead from which all other rights derive because it is what says you belong to you.

ZOMORODI: So let's say someone listening to this is like, OK, I'm with you. I'm with you on this privacy thing. What's the answer that we need the government, which you say, based on your track record, is untrustworthy, but they're the only answer to creating rules, regulations, laws around these tech companies so that we can begin to trust them again because we've lost trust in them as well? Or is this just - there's - we're talking about, like, two entities that will never actually protect the self because it's not in their interest. It's not their job.

SNOWDEN: Yeah. No, this is a great question. This is the big one in a real way. There was always going to be a Mark Zuckerberg, a Jeff Bezos, a Peter Thiel who wants to advantage themselves at the cost of society. There was always going to be an elected leader who goes, you know, I know this is against the law. I know this is likely controversial. And I know if the public knew I was doing this, I would be in a scandal, but maybe we can just hide it. And maybe if nobody hears about it, I can do what I want.

And this is the thing that's, again, always going to be causing problems. We are firefighters. I mean the American people, I mean humanity globally. We never pick the problems of our day. We inherit them from the previous generation, and we always have to be working to make them better. And I think that is - in a large way, you ask, you know, whose responsibility is this? Is it governments? Is it companies? Is it the individual? And the answer, sadly, is all of the above.

The United States is probably the only advanced democracy in the world that does not have a basic privacy law. We talked before about the Fourth Amendment, right? That's not a basic privacy law. That's a specific prohibition against the government to engage in particular kinds of searches, but it does nothing to protect you from sort of the predatory activities of companies.


SNOWDEN: So, yes, we do need basic regulations, which I don't think is a particularly big ask. And it is only by believing that the government can be better. It is only believing that our industry, that these companies can be better that they will ever get better because they will only ever meet our bare minimum expectations of them. We have to raise our expectations for the centers of power in society if we want to have a fairer society.

ZOMORODI: That's Edward Snowden. He wrote a book about his experiences called "Permanent Record." And you can find his appearance on the TED stage at ted.com.

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