Since he obtained and published Edward Snowden’s leaked National Security Agency documents a little more than a year ago, journalist Glenn Greenwald said people have told him over and over that government surveillance does not concern them.
“Those people don’t believe what they’re saying,” he told a sold-out audience last week at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.
To illustrate this, every time someone would come up to Greenwald and say they didn’t mind people knowing what they were doing because they had nothing to hide, he would proceed with the same two steps: first, by giving them his email address and then by asking them to send him all their email and social media passwords — just so he could have a look.
“I’ve not had one single person send me them,” he said, as the room swelled with laughter. “And I check my email box constantly!”
The humorous antidote, Greenwald said, exemplifies how people instinctively understand how privacy is vital to who we are. Just as much as we need to be social, we need a place where we can go to learn and think without others passing judgment on us.
“Privacy is embedded in what it means to be human and always has been across time periods and across cultures,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald recalled prominent figures who have tried to distance themselves from this fundamental need. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said in an interview in 2009, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” But four years before, Schmidt blacklisted CNET after it published an article on privacy concerns that listed where he lives, his salary, his political contributions, and his hobbies — all obtained from a 30-minute Google search.
Another privacy hypocrite Greenwald mentioned is Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein has been a major supporter of the NSA program, and hasmaintained it’s “not a surveillance program,” but rather a collection of lists of data. And while Greenwald said the program does regularly spy on people by listening to their phone calls or reading their emails, he said lists of your conversations — perhaps with a self-help hotline or medical clinic — are just as insidious. After all, he said, Feinstein never responded to a campaign calling on her to publish a list of all the people she emailed and called on a given day.
“Somebody collecting the list of all the people with whom you’re communicating will know an enormous amount about your most invasive and intimate realm,” he said. “Oftentimes even more than they’ll learn if they’re listening to your telephone calls, which could be cryptic, or your email communications which could be quite stunted.”
Greenwald then listed three well-known media figures who have also claimed that they weren’t worried about being targets of surveillance: MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker.
“I started thinking about what those people have in common,” Greenwald said, adding that he realized they all more or less defend the government in their reporting. But if you go into American Muslim communities, or the Occupy movement, or groups who challenge the status quo, he said, you’ll find countless people afraid of being targeted.
In addition, this notion implies that if you don’t challenge the government, you won’t have to worry about being spied on. But “the true measure of how free a society is,” Greenwald said, “is how it treats its dissidents.”
He added, “We should not be comfortable or content in a society where the only way to remain free of surveillance and oppression is if we make ourselves unthreatening and passive and compliant as possible.”
The discontent with the way society operates is starting to ignite change. While the NSA has not closed up shop, because, as Greenwald said, a government isn’t going to limit its own power, there’s no reason to be pessimistic. Greenwald pointed to the countries worldwide that are angered by what the United States is doing and are pushing back. In addition, tech giants like Google and Facebook, which enthusiastically assist the NSA, are threatened by their bottom line, as people can refuse their services and seek other developing platforms that don’t put their privacy up for sale.
Ultimately, the lesson of Snowden’s actions signifies that people can spark change. After all, Greenwald said, Snowden was a 29-year-old high school dropout who grew up in a working-class family.
“And yet, through nothing more than a pure act of a conscience, a choice to be fearless in the face of injustice, Edward Snowden literally changed the world,” Greenwald told the audience. “I’ve come infected by that courage.… All of this should be a personal antidote to the temptation of defeatism.”
Glenn Greenwald will be speaking in other cities in the upcoming week about the NSA, privacy, and his new book No Place to Hide. Click here for more info.