MINNEAPOLIS — Modern technology and the ubiquity of Internet-connected devices makes surveillance almost inescapable, even for privacy experts like NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“For me, for example, I really know what I’m doing, but if the NSA wants to pop my box, they’re going to do it,” he explained during an interview with VICE News that aired on Wednesday.
Vice founder Shane Smith traveled to Russia, where Snowden has lived on asylum since the U.S. government revoked his passport in 2013. He asked Snowden to reflect on the “state of surveillance” today, three years after news of Snowden’s leaks first hit the mainstream media.
“As long as they can dedicate people, money and time to the target, [governments] can get in” to smartphones, laptops, tablets and virtually any other electronic device, Snowden told Smith.
“Every part of our private life today is found on someone’s phone. We used to say a man’s home is his castle. Today a man’s phone is his castle.”
Snowden explained that mass surveillance became a fact of life without most people realizing that they’d lost any level of privacy. “If a politician had said we want to watch everyone in the country, people would have been up in arms about it,” the whistleblower continued.
Instead, Snowden said that after September 11, Vice President Dick Cheney “conspired” with the NSA to change both the methods and the “culture of surveillance in the intelligence community.”
“They moved from the exceptional surveillance to the surveillance of everyone.”
Once inside a person’s phone, agents can access “everything in your contacts list, every SMS message, every place it’s ever been, where the phone is physically located — even if you have GPS disabled, because they can see which wireless access points are near you,” Snowden continued.
“This is the same information that’s produced when a private investigator follows you around all day.”
The technology to intercept cellphone metadata is inexpensive and widely available to police, government agencies, and even the general public. A Vice investigation in January found interception devices, known as IMSI catchers or stingrays, across London, including within monitoring range of Parliament and the Embassy of Ecuador, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lives under political asylum.
A similar investigation by Norway’s Aftenposten last year found that the use of IMSI catchers is so widespread in Oslo that reporters initially doubted their findings, only to have them confirmed by technology experts.
Stingrays have even been placed on airplanes by the FBI, a program that Snowden said launched in Yemen then moved “from the war front to the home front.”
During the interview, Snowden showed Smith that government agents can activate any feature on a phone at will, including microphones and cameras, unless they’ve been physically disabled by the owner — a feat of technical know-how beyond the capability of most everyday users. Plus a modified phone would be unusable for calls without plugging in a headset.
“You might have bought the phone, but whoever hacked it, they’re the ones who own it,” Snowden said.
“Perhaps the most terrifying thing is if your phone had been hacked, you would never know,” he added.
Locations like the Moscow motel room where the pair met are also easily bugged. “I would definitely presume that in any world capital, in a major business hotel, if the rooms aren’t pre-wired for surveillance they can be wired almost immediately,” Snowden noted.
Despite monitoring everyone almost continuously, the whistleblower emphasized that no government, including that of the United States, has successfully used mass surveillance to stop a terrorist attack. “[T]he problem is, when you cast the net too wide, when you’re collecting everything, you understand nothing.”
Snowden said the stakes are high if humanity can’t rein in our governments:
“When we think about the future and where we go from here, the question is are we going to change and enter sort of quantified world where everywhere you’ve been, everyone you’ve talked to is indexed, it’s analyzed, it’s stored, and it’s used, maybe against you?”
The only other option is to “recognize the danger of that, and embrace the fact that people should have space to make mistakes without judgment, to have sort of the unconsidered thought or conversation with your friend.”
Snowden concluded that politicians seem ill-prepared to deal with these weighty ethical issues, even three years after his leaks, but that they’ll have little choice but to address them in the near future:
“This really is the question that our political structures are not yet comfortable even discussing. But whether they like it or not, it’s a world that’s coming and we’re going to have to confront.”
Watch “‘State of Surveillance’ with Edward Snowden and Shane Smith” from Vice News:
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