NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, Brazilian privacy activist David Miranda and others have launched a new campaign to establish global privacy standards. The proposed International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers would require states to ban mass data collection and implement public oversight of national security programs. The treaty would also require states to offer asylum to whistleblowers. It is being dubbed the “Snowden Treaty.” At a launch event last week, Edward Snowden spoke about the need for the treaty via teleconference from Russia. “This is not a problem exclusive to the United States or the National Security Agency or the FBI or the Department of Justice or any agency of government anywhere. This is a global problem that affects all of us,” Snowden said.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: We’ve already changed culture. We can discuss things now that five years back, if you had brought them up in a serious conversation, would have gotten you sort of labelled as a conspiracy theorist or someone who really was a—was not really thinking about what governments reasonably are likely to do. Now, the danger of this is that we’re always living in a circumstance where governments go a little bit further than what any public would approve of if we knew the full details of government.
Now that we’ve established at least the bare facts of what’s going on in the arena of our basic liberties, what happens as we transit through a city, as we talk to our friends, as we we engage with family, as we browse books online, all of these things are being tracked, they’re being intercepted, they’re being recorded. They’re being indexed into a sort of surveillance time machine that allows institutions that hold great powers, whether they are public institutions, whether they’re private institutions, such as corporations—they’re empowering themselves at the expense of the public.
Now, we’re beginning to shift from that cultural, necessary change, where we brought awareness of what’s really happening, into a point where we need to think about what the actual proposals that we’re going to put forth are going to be. We need to change not just the facts that we’re aware of, but the facts of the policies that we’re going to live under. And some people would be encouraged, saying we’ve made improvements. There have been the first and most important legal reforms in the surveillance arena domestically within the United States passed in nearly 40 years. But if you ask anyone who studies the actual legislation, they’ll agree that they’re a first step. They don’t go anywhere near far enough.
And as was just mentioned, we see that in many countries around the world governments are aggressively pressing for more power, more authority, more surveillance rather than less. And this is not just in foreign states. This is not just in what we would consider traditional adversary states such as, you know, Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, whoever you’re really afraid of. It’s not just people who are different from us. This has happened in Australia, where they now have mandatory retention of everyone’s data without regard to whether they’re involved in any sort of criminal activity or if they’ve even fallen under any sort of criminal suspicion. We see the same proposals put forth and adopted in Canada. We see the same thing occurring in the United Kingdom. We’ve seen the same thing pass in France.
And what’s extraordinary about this is that, in every case, these policy proposals that work against the public are being billed as public safety programs. But when we look at the facts, for example, in the United States, even if you’re not aware of or you don’t believe the reports that have been shown in the newspaper based on classified documents that show governments are engaging in the broad, massive and indiscriminate collection of data on every citizen’s lives, you can see that governments have confirmed things, they’ve declassified them through their own documents, and they’ve done investigations to discover: Are these programs, now that they’ve been declassified, now that we can discuss them, are they really valuable? Do they really keep us safe?
And despite two independent investigations appointed by the White House, that are, again, allies of these institutions and have every incentive to sort of whitewash these programs and say they’re wonderful, have in fact said that upon—upon reviewing all available evidence, even classified evidence, after interviewing the directors of the National Security Agency and so on and so forth, they’ve seen that these programs actually don’t save lives. Mass surveillance, by their own quotes, has never made a concrete difference in a single terrorism investigation in the United States.
There was one case where the mass surveillance of everyone’s phone records in the United States of America showed that there was a single cab driver in California wiring money back to his clan in Somalia that did have some ties to terrorism, but even in that case, the government said they could have achieved—and they would have achieved—the same evidentiary gain through traditional targeted means of investigation. They said they were already closing in on this individual.
And so, this raises the question: Why are programs being billed as public safety programs when they have no corresponding public safety benefit? And the unfortunate reality is that while these programs do have value—you know, the government is not doing this for absolutely no reason—the value that they have is based on intelligence collection. It’s based on adversarial competition between states that’s happening secretly. It’s happening without any form of robust oversight. It’s happening without the involvement of real open courts with an adversarial process.
And increasingly, we’re seeing that even if these programs are instituted with the best of intentions—to keep citizens safe, to assist in war zone operations, in the intervention of terrorism in certain spaces around the United States and throughout the world—inevitably they come back to impact us here at home. The same programs that the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency collaborated on in areas like Yemen are now being used by the United States Marshals Service in the United States against common criminals, people who do not represent any real threat to public safety in a manner that would justify in any way the intrusion into and the violation of millions and millions of citizens’ rights—and noncitizens.
And unfortunately, this trend is continuing. If you open The Washington Post just today, you’ll see that the Obama administration was secretly exploring new ways to bypass the technological protections of our privacy in the devices that surround us every day. Now, this is what we confront today. This is not a problem exclusive to the United States or the National Security Agency or the FBI or the Department of Justice or any agency of government anywhere. This is a global problem that affects all of us. What’s happening here happens in France, it happens in the U.K., it happens in every country, in every place, to every person. And what we have to do is we have to have a discussion. We have to come forward with proposals, to go, “How do we assert what our rights are, traditionally and digitally, and ensure that we not just can enjoy them, but we can protect them, we can rely upon them, and we can count on our representatives of government to defend these rights rather than working against them?”
And with that, I’ll turn it over to David Miranda. Thank you very much for the invitation to speak.
DAVID MIRANDA: Well, I wanted to start saying how this idea came up with me. As you all know, Glenn Greenwald is my partner. I’ve been working with him for the past nine years that he’s been a journalist. We work together very close in every aspect that we have. And in 2013, when he got the documents with Ed, and we started publishing everything, I was very excited, very afraid in the beginning, as well, because, you know, it would come—it could be some kind of retaliation from the U.S. government and everything.
So, I wanted to start saying that, like, I was working with Laura and Glenn back home, and Laura went back to Berlin, where was she editing her movie, the Citizenfour, who won the Oscar this year. I went there to have a discussion about the next publications and what are we going to do about the movie and everything. As I was coming back, I was detained in Heathrow. I was detained in Heathrow by a law called Terrorism Act—sorry, my English. And I was detained for nine hours inside of a room. Eight hours 15 minutes I was detained without having any contact with the external world. I have to answer every single question they ask me. If one of the agents—seven agents interrogating me—thought for a second that that was a lie or that I didn’t answer accordingly what they wanted, they could give me [inaudible]prison after that.
This is the kind of law that we’re seeing growing up around the world—not just in the U.K., around the entire world. So, in that moment, I thought—I was already engaged in working with Glenn and with Laura and The Guardian. But that moment, it shocks—it tracks me down. Two days before they detained me, they sent a warning to the White House they are going to do that. So, they are tracking me, an ordinary citizen, a journalist who is doing a journalist’s job. It could be any of you. It could be all of us in the same room sitting, interrogating, getting our material confiscated, like Laura did so many times.
So, that—instead of that, sitting and go back to my house and watch that entire scene happen to me and being afraid, that didn’t happen. That vowed me to fight against this system that is so corrupted. So I start with a petition with Avaaz in Brazil, so we can grant asylum for Snowden there. We make a huge movement in Brazil with Avaaz. We got a petition that got close to a million-and-a-half signatures. We took to our government. The response they have was none. He didn’t send us a property document to grant asylum to him. In that time, Ed was talking to the Russian government, and he had some complications, even ask for a letter, talking to Brazilian people, on that time.
But in that, it strikes me. One country, by its own, cannot go against the U.S. The U.S. has so much power in this world that he can make so much retaliations to one country. So the idea was to get a group of countries to grant him asylum. That was the beginning ideas, like if a few countries can get together and talk this and grant him asylum, he would be having asylum, because the U.S. cannot go for a group of countries.
So what happened, that idea evolved, because after we published those documents in many, many countries, we saw that the real problem is not just to grant asylum for whistleblowers. We have a major problem that is the mass surveillance in the entire world. They can like spy on every each one of us. And I saw, after those publications has been passed, the corporation has been moving towards to protect their own secrets, like the corporation is encrypted because of the—like, there’s a company in Germany saying that, “Oh, look, you can use our social network, and we will protect you.” So Facebook encrypted. So, Apple, now you can see like the U.S. court—it sounds like a joke, but the U.S. court actually—the U.S. go to a court to ask Apple forget the message. Before Edward Snowden, that was not even like something that crossed their mind. So we see the change happening, and the corporal, they are all protecting themselves. Why can we not protect ourselves?
So we try, we sit down, we talked to many experts to create like some kind of draft for this treaty that we will want to introduce. And what would pass would be in the U.N. This year the U.N. have a special report, Joe—Joseph Cannataci—he likes to be called by “Joe.” We have a few talks, and we create like—not with him, but we created this document that we are still working. We have been talking to a few governments, had many reunions with a lot of people about this.
But like, right now, we are on a point that we have to understand the corporations are protecting themselves. So what are we going to do to protect ourselves? Because they can have all the experts to do everything for their companies. We can demand laws, international laws, because we have separate laws for a few places, but we need to be having an understanding what privacy, what mass surveillance means, how these powers can be restricted and how we, as human beings, can be all together and just change this corrupt system of abuse of power and make like the world a better place.
So this day, today, is just a call for everybody just to come forth and talk and say that their privacy matters, that we want our rights to be respected. So we got to get together and make this change to happen. It’s not a dream. The companies are doing that. They are protecting themselves against the government. Why can’t we? So I’m calling all of you to be a part of this.
GLENN GREENWALD: And to me, the most—the two most significant aspects of this campaign is the effort to create and build support for this international treaty, which would not only establish the digital right to privacy as an international human right against mass surveillance, but also, as importantly, and maybe even more importantly, in my view, given the work I do, to provide protections for sources and whistleblowers internationally. And obviously, the treaty has its genesis in the work that we’ve done with the Snowden documents and that people around the world, activists around the world, have done around the surveillance revelations, but it goes way, way beyond the case of Edward Snowden or even the revelations of surveillance.
But I do want to just highlight two—really briefly, just two lessons that I think we learned from the last two years about how the Snowden story unfolded that underscores why this treaty is so compelling and the campaign that has been launched today is so important. The first thing that, you know, I noticed personally is that I went around to a lot of different countries in the world doing reporting, speaking to media and government bodies about the Snowden revelations, and what I really discovered early on was that Edward Snowden is a hero around the world, not just to huge numbers of people, but also to governments from around the world. They really appreciate and admire and are grateful for these revelations. But what it underscores is that governments are really good at admiring and applauding whistleblowers and other countries’ dissidents, but really bad at protecting the rights of their own. Obviously, a lot of the countries that are big supporters of what Edward Snowden did are really repressive when it comes to their own whistleblowers domestically. And, of course, the United States frequently applauds whistleblowers and leakers and dissidents in their adversary countries, while persecuting their own at home, not just Edward Snowden, but a whole litany of other people who have served as sources for journalists.
And so, I think the critical part of this treaty is to say that whistleblowers are entitled to protection on an international level. They shouldn’t have to rely on some sort of ad hoc desperate attempt at the last minute to avoid being put into prison for 40 years, as Edward Snowden did. There should be a regulation, an international framework in place that says that if you are a legitimate whistleblower who comes forward with information reasonably believed to be in the public interest, that you should not be prosecuted, and that if you are, it is the obligation of the international community to ensure that you get asylum and that your rights are protected. So I think that’s one of the really innovative aspects of this treaty. And I think the last two years have underscored why it’s so important.
The other thing I would note about what I think is so important about this campaign is that usually the way treaties are created and negotiated is that it’s generally done kind of behind the scenes. And there are good reasons for that. You know, countries have different sensitivities. Experts have a lot of input to provide in terms of how the treaty should be shaped. And there’s a lot of efforts already underway to create treaties for international privacy rights in the digital age.
But I think one of the other lessons that we’ve learned over the last two years is that public engagement is utterly vital. You know, if you think about it, the whistleblower protections that I just described sound really good to journalists who might be in the room or to activists. But to governments around the world, they might be really resistant to the idea of creating this objective standard that says that whistleblowers get protection, because it means that not only the ones in the countries they dislike will get it, but also their own. Or even if you look at, you know, the right against mass surveillance, a lot of countries would be against mass surveillance, but there are a lot of countries who wouldn’t. And so I think engaging the public through the kind of campaign that’s been launched today is really critical.
You know, David mentioned what I think is the most important post-Snowden change, which is the adaptation of encryption technologies by individuals around the world and now by Facebook and Apple and Google, in a way that’s really a threat to the regime of mass surveillance, which is why the U.S. and British governments are devoting so much efforts trying to demonize and vilify these tech companies, because they’re petrified of encryption. But I think it’s critical to note that the only reason these companies are adopting this encryption technology isn’t because they suddenly woke up and discovered a conscience or because they really care about privacy. It’s because the public is demanding it. The public is telling them, “We won’t use your services if we think you’re going to collaborate with governments and hand over our data to the NSA and to the GCHQ and to other surveillance agencies around the world.”
So it’s this public pressure that has generated this massive change, and I think it underscores the critical role of journalism and of democratic debate, which is that it’s not really the most effective way to go about things to do things behind closed doors, or at least—at the very least, that needs to be accompanied by a serious public engagement. And I think, more than anything else, this campaign offers that promise and represents an opportunity. And it’s unusual to sort of campaign for a treaty in this way, but I think, given the issues at stake, it’s really a healthy and valuable thing to do.