9 Things We Learned From Edward Snowden’s Live Q&A

The NSA whistle-blower answered questions Thursday about freedom, spying, and America in an online chat with Twitter users.

1. Snowden still believes in America.

Snowden’s response:

Yes. What makes our country strong is our system of values, not a snapshot of the structure of our agencies or the framework of our laws. We can correct the laws, restrain the overreach of agencies, and hold the senior officials responsible for abusive programs to account.

2. According to Snowden, encryption can protect user information if both ends of the connection are secure.

Snowden’s response:

As I’ve said before, properly implemented strong encryption works. What you have to worry about are the endpoints. If someone can steal you [sic] keys (or the pre-encryption plaintext), no amount of cryptography will protect you.

However, that doesn’t mean end-to-end crypto is a lost cause. By combining robust endpoint security with transport security, people can have much greater confidence in their day to day communications.

3. Snowden doesn’t think that the Whistleblower Protection Act is enough.

Snowden’s response:

One of the things that has not been widely reported by journalists is that whistleblower protection laws in the US do not protect contractors in the national security arena. There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective that they appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing. If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony. One only need to look at the case of Thomas Drake to see how the government doesn’t have a good history of handling legitimate reports of wrongdoing within the system.

Despite this, and despite the fact that I could not legally go to the official channels that direct NSA employees have available to them, I still made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen. The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom to go to through what Drake did.

My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive whistleblower protection act reform. If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the President seems to agree needed to be done.

4. Snowden denies stealing from or tricking any of his former co-workers.

#AskSnowden Was the privacy of your co-workers considered while you were stealing their log-in and password information?

— MichaelHargrov1 (@Michael Hargrove)

Snowden’s response:

With all due respect to Mark Hosenball, the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.

5. Snowden doesn’t believe that all spying is bad.

@wikileaks #AskSnowden what (in your opinion) is the appropriate extent of US national security apparatus? Surely some spying is needed?

— RagBagUSA (@Raghav Sharma)

Snowden’s response:

Not all spying is bad. The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day. This is done not because it’s necessary — after all, these programs are unprecedented in US history, and were begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers — but because new technologies make it easy and cheap.

I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record. Particularly when we now have courts, reports from the federal government, and even statements from Congress making it clear these programs haven’t made us any more safe, we need to push back.

This is a global problem, and America needs to take the lead in fixing it. If our government decides our Constitution’s 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures no longer applies simply because that’s a more efficient means of snooping, we’re setting a precedent that immunizes the government of every two-bit dictator to perform the same kind of indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance of entire populations that the NSA is doing.

It’s not good for our country, it’s not good for the world, and I wasn’t going to stand by and watch it happen, no matter how much it cost me. The NSA and the rest of the US Intelligence Community is exceptionally well positioned to meet our intelligence requirements through targeted surveillance — the same way we’ve always done it — without resorting to the mass surveillance of entire populations.

When we’re sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want to (up to and including Angela Merkel’s phone, if reports are to be believed), there’s no excuse to be wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri.

6. Snowden would like to return to the U.S., but doesn’t think he will be able to for the foreseeable future.

ICYMI, Edward Snowden responded to my Q: Under what conditions would you agree to return to the U.S.? http://t.co/Z5REAjgDjI #TheLead

— jaketapper (@Jake Tapper)

Snowden’s response:

Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself.

The hundred-year old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, and forbids a public interest defense. This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury.

Maybe when Congress comes together to end the programs the PCLOB just announced was illegal, they’ll reform the Whistleblower Protection Act, and we’ll see a mechanism for all Americans, no matter who they work for, to get a fair trial.

Attorney General Eric Holder told NBC that the U.S. “would engage in conversation” with Snowden, but clemency “would be going too far.”

7. The problems that Snowden has with mass surveillance are specific.

what's the worst and most realistic harm from bulk collection of data? Why do you think it outweighs national security? #AskSnowden

— ferenstein (@Greg Ferenstein)

Snowden’s response:

The worst and happening-right-now harm of bulk collection — which again, is a euphemism for mass surveillance — is two-fold.

The first is the chilling effect, which is well-understood. Study after study has show that human behavior changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively *are* less free.

The second, less understood but far more sinister effect of these classified programs, is that they effectively create “permanent records” of our daily activities, even in the absence of any wrongdoing on our part. This enables a capability called “retroactive investigation,” where once you come to the government’s attention, they’ve got a very complete record of your daily activity going back, under current law, often as far as five years. You might not remember where you went to dinner on June 12th 2009, but the government does.

The power these records represent can’t be overstated. In fact, researchers have referred to this sort of data gathering as resulting in “databases of ruin,” where harmful and embarrassing details exist about even the most innocent individuals. The fact that these records are gathered without the government having any reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying the seizure of data is so divorced from the domain of reason as to be incapable of ever being made lawful at all, and this view was endorsed as recently as today by the federal government’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight board.

Fundamentally, a society in which the pervasive monitoring of the sum of civil activity becomes routine is turning from the traditions of liberty toward what is an inherently illiberal infrastructure of preemptive investigation, a sort of quantified state where the least of actions are measured for propriety. I don’t seek to pass judgment in favor or against such a state in the short time I have here, only to declare that it is not the one we inherited, and should we as a society embrace it, it should be the result of public decision rather than closed conference.

8. Death threats from the U.S. intelligence community are concerning.

Recently several threats have been made on your life by the intelligence community. Are you afraid for your life? Thoughts? #AskSnowden

— mrbass21 (@Jason Beck)

Snowden’s response:

It’s concerning, to me, but primarily for reasons you might not expect.

That current, serving officials of our government are so comfortable in their authorities that they’re willing to tell reporters on the record that they think the due process protections of the 5th Amendment of our Constitution are outdated concepts. These are the same officials telling us to trust that they’ll honor the 4th and 1st Amendments. This should bother all of us.

The fact that it’s also a direct threat to my life is something I am aware of, but I’m not going to be intimidated. Doing the right thing means having no regrets.

9. Snowden believes that the problem with intelligence agencies partially lies with unaccountable senior officials.

#ASKSNOWDEN They say it's a balance of privacy and safety. I think spying makes us less safe. do you agree?

— mperkel (@mperkel)

Snowden’s response:

Intelligence agencies do have a role to play, and the people at the working level at the NSA, CIA, or any other member of the IC are not out to get you. They’re good people trying to do the right thing, and I can tell you from personal experience that they were worried about the same things I was.

The people you need to watch out for are the unaccountable senior officials authorizing these unconstitutional programs, and unreliable mechanisms like the secret FISA court, a rubber-stamp authority that approves 99.97% of government requests (which denied only 11 requests out of 33,900 in 33 years http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/06/fisa-court-nsa-spying-opinion-reject-request). They’re the ones that get us into trouble with the Constitution by letting us go too far.

And even the President now agrees our surveillance programs are going too far, gathering massive amounts of private records on ordinary Americans who have never been suspected of any crime. This violates our constitutional protection against unlawful searches and seizure. Collecting phone and email records for every American is a waste of money, time and human resources that could be better spent pursuing those the government has reason to suspect are a serious threat.

I’m going to stop here. My deepest thanks to everyone who sent questions, and whether or not we agree on where the lines should be drawn, I encourage you to contact your members of congress and tell them how you feel about mass surveillance. This is a global problem, and the first step to tackling it is by working together to fix it at home.

If you’d like to more ideas on how to push back against unconstitutional surveillance, consider taking a look at the organizations working together to organize https://thedaywefightback.org/.

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Contact this reporter at aaron.calvin+done@buzzfeed.com
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