Today at the SXSW conference, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden joined the event digitally to speak about mass surveillance. Since his revelations began to spill last summer, Snowden has been a lightning rod for discussion regarding the proper role of government, and how we handle privacy as a kind.
In his remarks regarding the need for more consumer-friendly encryption, Snowden condemned the NSA, his former employer, and its leaders.
Painting Director of the National Security Agency General Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper with a single stroke, Snowden said that they have done more harm than anyone else to our national and Internet security. The NSA, in Snowden’s view, is “setting fire to the Internet,” and those in charge of the operation bear that guilt.
Snowden’s argument is simple: By “eroding our protections of communications to get an attack advantage,” the NSA is harming the integrity of the Internet itself, a field in which the United States has a global advantage in terms of innovation. Using an analogy of a vault, Snowden asked why the nation that has the most in their vault would build a backdoor in the vault itself instead of working to protect it. This correlates with Snowden’s view that the NSA is harming security by putting offense ahead of defense; making sure that there is a way into the vault instead of the opposite may not be the best way to keep its contents safe.
Does the disclosure that the NSA acts in that manner, and the methods by which it does so harm our national security? Snowden, unsurprisingly, doesn’t think so. In fact, he thinks that his work does the opposite, that it actually improves the nation’s safety. We rely on the ability to trust our communications, he said, and without that we have nothing. So, provided that we are moving towards more secure communication, we are moving towards safety.
Snowden’s argument is predicated on the idea that the integrity of your and my communications is tied to the nation’s larger interest. The connection between the two isn’t directly apparent, so let’s unpack the idea a bit. If the United States government can access the communications of its citizens on a pervasive basis, it implies that the communication itself is either insecure enough by default, or insecure enough by direct action to be accessed chronically.
By Alex Wilhelm
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