Techno-anarchists around the world have adopted Edward Snowden as their superhero since leaks from the former National Security Agency contractor have exposed widespread government snooping. But those calling for the U.S. to shut down its spying operations shouldn't expect him to fly in and save the day.
In a Web chat today, Snowden said he's opposed to "indiscriminate mass surveillance" but recognizes that some government snooping is necessary. Jesselyn Radack — one of his legal advisers and a director at the Government Accountability Project in Washington, an advocacy group for whistle-blowers — confirmed to me in an e-mail that it was Snowden who was answering questions submitted by people on Twitter.
"Not all spying is bad," Snowden wrote in the online chat. "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."
Snowden, who said it's "not possible" for him to return to the U.S. under current law, cited President Barack Obama's proposed changes to NSA spying programs as an admission that "our surveillance programs are going too far." While Obama plans to stop the NSA from keeping phone records, the president defended electronic spying in his speech last week. The White House maintains that the program is lawful, even in spite of a U.S. privacy-policy board concluding today that the bulk data collection is illegal and should be stopped. According to Snowden, it's also bad business.
"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," Snowden wrote. "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."
Snowden called for the establishment of international law establishing limits on spying and hacking. For example, "Nobody should be hacking critical-to-life infrastructure like hospitals and power stations," he wrote.
Perhaps a more effective deterrent would be improved cybersecurity. That could be achieved through an international research organization that develops and standardizes stronger digital safeguards, Snowden said. They might want to start by studying a certain piece of software that Snowden is a proponent of: Tor, which happens to be the subject of this week's cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.
"We need a global forum, and global funding, committed to the development of security standards that enforce our right to privacy not through law, but through science and technology," Snowden wrote. "This is a global problem, and America needs to take the lead in fixing it."