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Silicon Valley Is Key to Limiting NSA Surveillance

Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald says tech giants have a role to play in lobbying to push for restrictions on the power of the National Security Agency.

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A little more than a year ago, journalist Glenn Greenwald and his then-colleagues at the Guardian, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, set off for Hong Kong to meet a mysterious source who promised unprecedented information about the United States' intelligence activities. Little did they know that Edward Snowden, a young ex-contractor for the National Security Agency, was about to turn over a trove of documents on the sweeping surveillance operations conducted by the US and British intelligence agencies. Snowden's leaks pulled back the veil on the vast eavesdropping apparatus set up after the September 11 attacks and the collusion among Silicon Valley's giants, telecoms, and the intelligence community to conduct bulk surveillance on US citizens.

While many Silicon Valley firms willingly gave the NSA access to their data and servers through a program called "Prism," the intelligence service was not content with having just front-door access to these companies. Through an initiative known as "Google Cloud Exploitation," the NSA also gained access to Google's encrypted server traffic.

I spoke with Greenwald in advance of his trip to the United States for a month-long cross-country tour to promote his new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State. Greenwald, whose book tour represented his first return to the United States since the Guardian began publishing the Snowden leaks in June last year, spoke over the phone from his house in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Greenwald will be speaking on June 18 at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.

A year on from the revelations by Snowden, Greenwald said the impact of the NSA leaks and subsequent media coverage of state surveillance was substantial and multifaceted — beyond the "extremely mild legislation" that has been proposed in Congress to rein in the NSA's power. "Sometimes there's a focus on some kinds of statutory reforms," Greenwald said. "To me, that's the least interesting and [least] informative angle of the story — restraints of government power won't come from the government itself."

That said, Greenwald noted the fact that Congress deigning to discuss legislative restrictions to the powers granted to intelligence services by the Patriot Act and subsequent presidential orders represented a turning point in US politics. "This is the first time in the post 9/11 era when the US has even considered reducing its power," he said.

Despite the impact of the Snowden-inspired journalism, Greenwald warned that companies that profit from the $139.2 billion surveillance industry would fight to guard their gains. "The private sector benefits massively from the explosion of this surveillance and police state," he said. "They control statehouses in every state in the country and are immune to changes in elections and outcomes. Private companies hold 75 percent of the NSA's $10.8 billion budget."

In his view, the public outrage about the extent of surveillance by the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ in both the United States and overseas was critical to spurring lawmakers to entertain changes to a security apparatus that had metastasized with minimal opposition for more than a decade. "American political culture doesn't care about public opinion until it manifests itself in the street," Greenwald said.

The private sector's reactions to the Snowden leaks and the level of government penetration into the networks and servers of some of Silicon Valley's giants were of particular interest to Greenwald. "Tech companies have cut off all cooperation with the intelligence community beyond what the law requires," he said. Market and consumer pressure have already led to major South American and European technology companies pitching their wares to private clients as an alternative to US companies that cooperated with (or were back-doored) by the NSA.

Despite the outrage of some tech workers to the Snowden revelations, Greenwald was unsparing in describing the level of willing cooperation between the American intelligence services and Bay Area companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple before Snowden came forward. "In general, the tech community has an absolutely heinous record in collaborating with the NSA and has to own up to the very culpable role in enabling that to happen," he said. "The NSA's ability to access data depends on how these companies protect it or hand it over — and they did hand it over, with a couple noble exceptions, including Twitter."

The tech industry's image, Greenwald said, has been battered by the exposure of how closely some companies cooperated with the NSA — a fact that directly threatens their bottom line. "Fourteen- and sixteen-year-olds aren't going to trust Silicon Valley to safeguard their communications, which can hurt their ability to expand their user base," Greenwald said. "Frankly, I don't think anybody trusts these companies now, and they've got incentive to change their behavior out of sheer corporate self-interest. In the future, I think privacy is going to become a huge component in how competition for these users plays out.

"The bigger changes will come from the fact that the American tech industry is in full-blown panic about how this will impact business," Greenwald continued. "They're already starting to implement serious technical obstacles to government surveillance and it looks like they're building really potent walls between the NSA and their data."

Greenwald believes Silicon Valley's role will be to use its considerable lobbying power to push for restrictions on the powers of the NSA. An international coalition of companies is already trying to figure out ways around American dominance of internet traffic and the subsequent ability of the NSA to tap into global communications.

Another solution Greenwald sees to the challenge of bulk state surveillance is the spread of encryption technology and the development of tools that simplify the task of securing communications — a technical obstacle that almost cost him the NSA story when Greenwald didn't reply to Snowden's initial emails because Snowden requested encryption.

"It is still more difficult than it should be, and it is imperative to make encryption widespread amongst the average use; learning encryption is something I'd always wanted to do and didn't because of how daunting it seems," Greenwald said. "We're at the point that, given what we know, every person who works in a profession that requires confidentiality has a moral and professional obligation to use encryption to protect their communications from surveillance." For Greenwald, this includes journalists as well as social science researchers, psychologists, and attorneys.

On a broader level, Snowden's decision to abandon a comfortable life in Hawaii to become a whistleblower — and a wanted man — has offered an image of an alternative role model for future techies. "Graduates of Stanford and UCLA are going to be pursued by the NSA, by private companies like Palantir to put their skills to work on behalf of that system," Greenwald said. "But they'll also going to be pursued by firms developing privacy safeguards, and that illustrates the choice Snowden underscored for every one of us: 'Am I going to promote by self-interest over my moral, ethical and political values, or am I going to take a stand?'"

Oakland's debate over the Domain Awareness Center during the past year was fueled in large part by increased awareness of government spying thanks to Snowden — and to Greenwald, Poitras, and fellow journalist Barton Gellman, who were awarded with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in April. "There has been a reawakening of the need to think about why privacy matters in all the various ways our privacy can be breached," Greenwald said.

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