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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 6/25/14

Glenn Greenwald on Government Snooping: Why It's Dangerous and What We Can Do About It

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Paton: Am I then legally a target of the NSA because I'm having a phone call with you, who's done all this stuff that they consider a domestic threat?

Greenwald: Well, look at how the NSA justifies its metadata program. What they'll say is that the only people whose telephone records they examine are those people who are considered threats or who are three hops away from those considered threats. Meaning -- if I'm a threat -- everybody I talk to, and then everybody those people talk to, and then everybody those people talk to. Which generally ends up being millions of people, just from those three hops alone. So yeah, they use associational analysis all the time to decide that you're dangerous, or pose a threat, based not on things you're doing, but the people with whom you're interacting.

Paton: What's your feeling about what kind of a threat the NSA poses to civil liberties and American citizens?

Greenwald: They pose an enormous threat. The goal, the institutional objective of the NSA, is captured by their own motto, which is "Collect it all." And when this was first reported, they tried to claim that it was just an off-the-cuff joke by Keith Alexander [then-director of the NSA], who was just saying, "Oh, we should collect everything," and that wasn't really what they were trying to do.

But the documents, including many new ones I published in my book, make clear that this motto, "Collect it all," is something that really does shape and define the agency's mission. It appears over and over again. I mean, they're literally devoted to the elimination of privacy in the digital age, by which I mean that they want to collect and store and -- when they want -- analyze and monitor every single communication event that takes place electronically between all human beings on the planet.

And when you eliminate the private realm, which is what that would do, you make all other forms of political liberty virtually impossible. If you don't have a place where you can go and think and explore and be and plan and talk without official prying, judgmental eyes being cast upon you, all of the other liberties become nothing more than symbolic guarantees, rather than actual ones.

Paton: What can regular people do to fight back against the abuses of the NSA and the threats to civil liberties?

Greenwald: A lot. I don't think that people should expect that the limitations on the power of the U.S. government will come from the U.S. government itself. That's just not the way that power typically functions -- that people walk around thinking, "How can I unilaterally limit my own power?" So I do think political pressure on political officials can help to some degree, but that isn't the primary means of imposing limits.

There are other ways. I think that the coalitions that are forming on the part of other countries around the world to undermine U.S. hegemony over the Internet is important. But I think that even more important is that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Cisco and Yahoo are genuinely petrified about the effect that this surveillance will have on their future. Why would people around the world want to use U.S. tech companies if they know that those companies will turn their data over to the NSA? And you have Brazilian and Korean and German companies telling people, "You should use our services instead of theirs because we will protect the privacy of your communications." And I think that's one important thing that individuals can do, is refrain from using the services of companies that collaborate with the NSA, and instead use only those companies that are providing meaningful guarantees of your security.

And then the other thing is that the more people from around the world realize the extent to which their privacy has been compromised, the more they understand the need to use things like encryption technology to protect their privacy over the Internet. It's absolutely legal, and it's relatively -- it's not as easy as it should be to use, but it's not as hard as a lot of people think it is. And it works.

Paton: Where would I go to find easy-to-access, easy-to-use encryption technology?

Greenwald: It's not as easy as it should be to use, and that's been one of the problems. We need to get to the point -- and will get to the point soon, as a result of, I think, these disclosures -- where there's products that let you just encrypt without even realizing you're doing it, where that's just the default means of communication.

Paton: What about Lavabit, the company that Edward Snowden used to send his emails? I thought it was basically shut down by the government.

Greenwald: He was using an email system that took encryption very seriously, that the U.S. government was incapable of invading. So they went to court and got an order that compelled that company to turn over the encryption keys to the U.S. government, so that officials could circumvent the encryption wall. And rather than comply with what the owner of this company believed to be an unjust order, he just shut the whole company down. But that actually shows that encryption works.

Paton: So as long as I were to use a company that wasn't being compelled by a court order to turn over their records, my stuff would be safe?

Greenwald: Well, there's two different ways to protect your communications. One way is to use companies that do the encryption for you. But then the other way is to add your own encryption shell by using software like PGP, or "Pretty Good Privacy," to encrypt your emails and other communications. So if you go to Google and just search for "How do I use PGP email," you'll find some guides that walk you through the process in a way that, even if you're not very sophisticated technologically, you should be able to follow. But both forms of encryption are important.

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