Edward Snowden has warned that surveillance technology is so much more advanced and intrusive today it makes that used by US and British intelligence agencies he revealed in 2013 look like child’s play.
In an interview on the 10th anniversary of his revelations about the scale of surveillance – some of it illegal – by the US National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ, he said he had no regrets about what he had done and cited positive changes.
But he is depressed about inroads into privacy both in the physical and digital world. “Technology has grown to be enormously influential,” Snowden said. “If we think about what we saw in 2013 and the capabilities of governments today, 2013 seems like child’s play.”
He expressed concern not only about dangers posed by governments and Big Tech but commercially available video surveillance cameras, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and intrusive spyware such as Pegasus used against dissidents and journalists.
Looking back to 2013, he said: “We trusted the government not to screw us. But they did. We trusted the tech companies not to take advantage of us. But they did. That is going to happen again, because that is the nature of power.”
Snowden has been in exile in Russia since 2013 after fleeing Hong Kong, where he handed over tens of thousands of top-secret documents to journalists.
His detractors denounce him for being in Russia, though it appears to be the only realistic option available to him other than jail in the US. Criticism has intensified since the invasion of Ukraine and his acquisition of Russian citizenship last year, two years after he applied.
But despite his personal predicament, Snowden does not dwell on the past. “I have no regrets,” he said.
Snowden has reduced his public profile over the last two years, giving fewer speeches, and retreating from press interviews and social media. This is partly because of family commitments: he and his wife have two young sons.
But he has remained in contact over the last decade with the three journalists who met him in Hong Kong, including this reporter. Friday marks exactly 10 years since Snowden revealed himself as the source of the leaks.
Snowden views the widespread use of end-to-end encryption as one of the positive legacies of the leaks. The Big Tech companies had been embarrassed by revelations the NSA had been handing over personal data.
That embarrassment turned to anger when further leaks revealed that, in spite of that co-operation, the NSA had been helping themselves to data from the Big Tech companies through backdoor vulnerabilities. In response, in spite of opposition from the agencies, companies rushed in end-to-end encryption years earlier than planned.
End-to-end encryption “was a pipe dream in 2013 when the story broke”, Snowden said. “An enormous fraction of global internet traffic travelled electronically naked. Now, it is a rare sight.”
But Snowden is worried by technological advances that eat into privacy. “The idea that after the revelations in 2013 there would be rainbows and unicorns the next day is not realistic. It is an ongoing process. And we will have to be working at it for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives and beyond.”
The intelligence agencies in the US and the UK acknowledge there was benefit from the debate on privacy that Snowden provoked but still argue this is outweighed by the damage they claim was done to their capabilities, including MI6 having to close down human-intelligence operations. Their other complaint is that the narrative in 2013 portrayed the NSA and GCHQ as the sole malign actors, ignoring what Russia and China were doing on the internet.
Snowden disputes such claims. He said no one at the time thought Russia and China were angels. As for damage, he said the agencies have never cited any evidence.
“Disruption? Sure, that is plausible,” he said. “But it is hard to claim ‘damage’ if, despite 10 years of hysterics, the sky never fell in.” – Guardian