Glenn Greenwald: Snowden and Silicon Valley's conscience (Q&A)

Three years after the world learned about US and UK surveillance programs, the reporter who helped publicize Edward Snowden's leaks says concerns over privacy have changed tech -- for the better.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
8 min read
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In June 2013, journalist Glenn Greenwald traveled to Hong Kong with filmmaker Laura Poitras and investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill to meet a mysterious source who wanted to leak top-secret documents from the US National Security Agency.

The source was then 29-year-old Edward Snowden, who left his job as an NSA contractor in Hawaii with a cache of documents. What followed was a series of news stories revealing surveillance techniques used by the US and UK to scoop up vast stores of user data and communications off the Internet.

The reports revealed that data was being collected about Americans and prompted many discussions about Internet privacy around the world.

Was that what Greenwald expected? Yes and no, he says.

"We genuinely didn't know," Greenwald said in an interview last month. "We thought there was a chance we could tell these stories and the world would say, 'eh.'"

Even so, he knew the disclosures would be historic.

"I had a pretty good idea it was going to make an extremely big impact and would enable a lot of light to be shined on many things that have unjustifiably been hidden from the public for a really long time," he said.

Since reporting on the Snowden leaks for UK newspaper The Guardian, Greenwald has co-founded The Intercept, where he continues to write about government surveillance. He spoke with me over Skype from his home in Rio de Janeiro about what has changed -- and what hasn't -- since he first met Snowden. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

Do you think there's been measurable change brought about by Snowden's revelations?
I think there's enormous change, far beyond what we ever expected would happen when we were back in Hong Kong three years ago.

There hasn't been a lot of change in terms of domestic law. The US hasn't enacted a bunch of laws imposing upon itself draconian limits about how it can spy. A lot of times people say, "So what has really changed?" They're thinking of that okay, you know, the NSA is still open, it's still spying. The law that was passed is pretty, you could say, trivial, in terms of what it changes. But we never thought that was where the real action is. Governments don't go around imposing huge amounts of limits on their own power.

The much more significant changes have taken place in terms of individual consciousness. People now understand the extent to which their privacy is being compromised. They, as a result, can and are taking all kinds of precautions to safeguard the privacy of their own communications by massively increasing their encryption use, which is taking place on every continent.

Watch this: Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped Snowden expose the NSA

What do you make of tech companies bragging about their privacy practices? Do you see a connection between that and Snowden's surveillance revelations?
These companies for years were more than willing to just run roughshod over the privacy rights of their users. They didn't care a slightest about any of that. They didn't just wake up one day and develop a conscience, and say, "Oh I actually think that's wrong, and privacy is really important from this ethical or political perspective." What changed was the market incentive, the fact that consumers are now demanding that privacy be safeguarded and refusing to use companies that won't do that.

The proof of that is the open conflict between the UK and US governments on the one hand, and these tech companies on the other. It is really quite remarkable. The US and the UK have now essentially launched a PR campaign to accuse Facebook and Google and Apple of being aiders and abettors of terrorist groups, essentially being the best friend of ISIS, of having blood on their hands. These companies are not being bullied by that kind of rhetoric, as damaging as it might be, because they fear even more than that public relations campaign a huge exodus of users who are not going to use their services if they are perceived as partners of the NSA and the UK's GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters].

Why has encryption -- scrambling data so it can't be read -- become a controversial topic?
As far as encryption is concerned, that is the key to defeating the surveillance state. And that's going to be the battle that probably is with us for not just years, but decades to come. It's going to be like an arms race.

On the one side you're going to see government agencies developing technologies to break encryption, to invade communication. On the other side, you're going to see private companies and privacy activists and others trying to use math to build a wall of numbers, essentially, around people's communication, and keep the government and non-state actors out. [What] is really crucial now, not to tell individuals to go use encryption because that's too complicated, but to have companies implant it, embed it in their products so that it's essentially automatic.

People go onto WhatsApp, and maybe they've never heard of encryption. But they're still using encryption, just like they use encryption when they do online banking or buy an airline ticket. [It's] a really fundamental change, and it's going to bring about enormous difficulties for these states that continue to engage in surveillance.

Enlarge Image

Edward Snowden didn't want to see the Internet turned into a tool of oppression and coercion, says Glenn Greenwald.

Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

What do you make of the FBI leading the push to access encrypted communications, as it's been doing in the court battles with Apple over the iPhone?
I think it was a deliberate strategy on the part of the government, because the NSA's reputation has become quite sullied as a result of the Snowden reporting.

They themselves have said that over and over: they have trouble recruiting. They've said that their employees have, you know, psychological and emotional burdens because their neighbors look upon their work as something pernicious. So anything having to do with the NSA is radioactive. And if they're leading the fight, then people are going to naturally resist what they're doing.

Whereas the FBI -- although they don't deserve any better reputation -- probably now has a better reputation. It's really actually quite fascinating because [of] what the government tried to do in this Apple-FBI conflict....I've seen this before over and over in the free speech realm: Governments want to restrict free speech, [so] what did they do? They pick the least sympathetic person whose free speech rights they want to try to abridge to create this precedent that then lets them abridge other people's rights going forward.

That's why people who defend free speech are constantly defending the worst people and the worst ideas. That's what they tried to do here. They tried to create a precedent that said: "We have a right to get into all iPhones, or all phones generally, and not only do we have the right to get into it but we can force companies to use their own experts to build us software that lets us circumvent their safeguards." To achieve this precedent, they tried to pick the most sympathetic effort, which was the FBI's effort to access this phone used by the San Bernardino killers, an ISIS-related attack on US soil.

They failed. They lost the PR war. They lost ultimately the legal battle. I think that putting the FBI out in front in the case like this was a tactical choice of theirs. But if they can't even win in a case like this where every sympathy is on their side, it shows how difficult the anti-privacy case has become to make in public.

Some critics called on people to stop sharing so much information with these tech companies to begin with. Do you think that's realistic?
When I met with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and kept pressing him on his motive for why he was willing to risk his liberty or even his life to bring this information the public, [this is] essentially what he said: [For] someone his age who came of age already in the world of the Internet, it's not this kind of ancillary technology that you can sort of choose to use or not use, the way maybe if you're older you think of it as.

It's the window into which you interact with the world. It's unavoidable.

So to see that compromised and turned into a tool of oppression and coercion and control as opposed to this innovation of liberation and democratization, was just so disturbing to him that he couldn't in good conscience let that happen. I don't think that there are ways to avoid these technologies. I think that what individual citizens can do is apply various pressure points to make sure that they can do so safely without having their privacy compromised.

Do you think companies have a role to play in not collecting so much information to begin with?
These companies that we're talking about -- Google and Facebook and Apple -- are now probably the most powerful companies in the world, more powerful than oil companies and defense contractors. They have more money than those industries. They exert more power. Their core business is collecting data. It's not like it's ancillary to their business.

People think of Google as a search company that sort of along the way collects data. No. Google provides search capacities so that you use it so it can collect data about you. Whether that's to monetize it or sell it or more importantly to analyze it so they can understand how the human brain works so that they can develop artificial intelligence products and the like, which they see as the future.

I don't see a way now to curb the willingness and ability of these companies...to collect this data. I do think that they can be incentivized not to abuse it, to protect people's privacy.

Does Snowden get a cut of any media, like your book or the documentary "Citizenfour"?
When we were in Hong Kong, we assumed that the outcome [for Snowden] would be ending up in US custody and spending the next four decades, if not the rest of his life, disappeared from the public, sitting in a cage in some maximum security prison. That is often the outcome for people accused of national security crimes.

So the fact he has ended up not in US custody, not in US prison, and most importantly of all, completely free to participate in the debate that he triggered around the world has been immensely positive for him and I think for every citizen concerned about these issues. Not only does he participate in these debates, but he has become an extremely desired speaker. So he gives speeches, he participates in events, he writes columns, he does interviews. He has large platforms. So, as he's talked about before, he's able to make a good living giving speeches and appearing for interviews and events by video, because he is in such demand around the world.