Paton: Do you think it would help if regular citizens who use Google and Yahoo wrote those companies or emailed them and told them they were going to stop using them if they continued to comply with NSA requests for data?
Greenwald: Yeah, absolutely. The companies take that very seriously. Or just stop using them and then write them a letter telling them why. If you look at some of the reporting that has been done in the last month, there's actually reporting that says that these companies are now building serious encryption walls to prevent the NSA from invading their systems. Either they're taking these concerns very seriously, or at least trying to convince the public that they are. They are afraid of what the impact of this surveillance system will be on their future business. So any communication to them that makes clear that you do take that seriously will, I think, be of great value.
Paton: By these companies you mean the U.S. companies like Google and Yahoo and the rest?
Greenwald: And Facebook, yeah.
Paton: Any sense of what the mindset is of the people who are so dedicated to capturing everything?
Greenwald: I think it's hard to talk about motive or mindset when you're talking about institutions this large. It's sort of like asking why the United States invaded Iraq. There's so many different reasons found in different factions of the government that you can't really isolate one or even a few.
But I think in general there has been this sense in the wake of 9/11 that these agencies need to be drowned with resources. And so when you take a bureaucracy like the NSA and just drown it in huge amounts of money, it will naturally expand its own mission because it doesn't have any resource limit to prevent it from doing that. On top of that, you have huge amounts of profit that are being made because nearly 75 percent of the intelligence budget goes to private corporations, which means the more this surveillance state expands, the more private interests are enriched.
And then on top of that you have the fact that knowing everything you can know about other people, including those over whom you're exercising power, has always been the most efficient way to maximize and bolster your own power and shield yourself from meaningful challenges. So I think it's about power, it's about profit, and it's about bureaucratic inertia and the way that bureaucracies expand.
Paton: If you were to look ahead five years, what are the two ends of the possibility spectrum you see? How could it go well, how could it go badly?
Greenwald: I think it could go badly by simply continuing as-is. I do think privacy can be a more or less obsolete state of the human condition because the Internet isn't just a thing that we use for discreet tasks, like the telephone or the post office. It's the place where we do our most intimate exploration of who we are as human beings. To allow that to be turned into a ubiquitous, limitless system of surveillance is one of the most extreme forms of human coercion and control ever known.
On the other hand, if the public outrage that has been engendered globally is sustained, and people continue to take privacy on the Internet seriously by using encryption and by pressuring their government to develop technologies to keep the NSA and other agencies out of their Internet activities, I think that we can use technology to make it much more difficult for the U.S. government and other governments to invade people's privacy this way.
Paton: Can you give us the names of any organizations that already exist that are trying to fight back against the invasions of the NSA and other organizations? I mean, public groups?
Greenwald: Sure. The ACLU does great work all the time in litigating privacy rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco is pretty much exclusively devoted to the idea of privacy in the digital age and has had some impressive wins against the government when it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests and litigating the unconstitutionality of a lot of this surveillance. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is similarly devoted to digital privacy. So there are definitely great groups out there that merit support or volunteerism or other kinds of effort to aid their efforts.
Paton: I've got one sort of just personal question I'm interested in. I've watched a lot of your interviews with the mainstream media, when people have tried to nail you. I'm impressed that you never get defensive. You come right back without even taking a breath and, again, sort of lay out what the real issue is. Why are you so good at that?
Greenwald: I appreciate that. I have a background in things like debate, which I did in high school and college, and of course I was a lawyer before I became a journalist and did a lot of courtroom work where maintaining your composure and keeping people focused on facts as opposed to emotional appeals is probably the paramount challenge. But I also think that it just comes from having passion.
I think if you believe in the sorts of things that you're saying, then you're willing to be attacked without taking it personally. You're willing to have people try and undermine you without being emotional about it. And I think the opportunity to convince people of crucial facts they don't typically hear is one that I don't want to squander by losing control of myself or bickering or anything like that.
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