Interview with Edward Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner (video)

13 Oct 2014

Ben Wizner, American Civil Liberties Union, who is the attorney acting on behalf of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Mass surveillance by groups such as the NSA and GCHQ is making us less secure and is contributing to vulnerabilities such as zero day flaws across the internet, Edward Snowden’s attorney Ben Wizner said today.

Wizner, who is director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, represents former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.

Snowden is on the run from US authorities after revealing the extent of mass surveillance on US and non-US citizens via communications networks and popular internet services, such as social network Facebook and internet search giant Google.

Snowden is now living in exile in Moscow.

Wizner was in Dublin today to address the SECILE final conference. SECILE is an EU-wide body comprising academic, military and legal professionals focused on providing informed data and insight on the effectiveness of counter-terrorism legislation.

Wizner said the Snowden revelations represent the major human rights story of the last year.

“This is about the passive collection of huge amounts of information, not distinguished by who is being collected and why.”

He said it is his belief that mass surveillance makes people less secure, not more secure.

“Before Snowden revealed the extent of this mass surveillance, it was already clear to people that surveillance technology and its spread had outpaced demographic controls.

“It used to be commonplace to choose lives of practical obscurity, you controlled what could be seen about you by those around you. That option has now disappeared for all but the most isolated individuals.”

Edward Snowden’s lawyer says mobile phones are essentially tracking devices

Interview with Edward Snowden’s attorney Ben Wizner

Wizner warned the technologies we use today, whether it is Facebook or just the mobile phone in your pocket, all form part of an elaborate spy system. “Your phone is no longer your phone, it is a tracker device.

“Hundreds of companies are trying to track and sell information to each other. The open road used to suggest freedom, now you are tracked everywhere you go by cameras and sensors.”

Wizner pointed out the economics of data storage make it possible to store more than ever before.

“For the first time in human history it is technologically and financially feasible for governments and corporations to record and store almost all records of human activity.”

Wizner said people’s principle protection against mass surveillance in the past hadn’t been law, but had always been cost.

He said while the stories of the past year have been all about the US National Security Agency (NSA), he said sophisticated systems such as the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)’s Tempura system play a leading role.

“These technologies and capabilities will soon be available to agencies around the world. GCHQ has the sophisticated technologies, the NSA has the infrastructure and the fact that many of the big tech companies are in the US.”

Wizner said that in the US, the government spends tens of billions on mass surveillance programmes and advocates such as the NSA, a defence agency, said its programmes are critical to stopping terrorist attacks.

“The NSA said that 54 plots were discovered but after examination the number was just one and that one case involved a Somalian taxi driver sending US$8,500 back to (militant group) al-Shabaab.”

Wizner said the NSA has been sending thousands of referrals to the FBI and not one has led to a lead. He said the FBI pushed back and said it was sending agents on wild goose chases when in fact they would prefer to apply boots and leather to real investigations.

Edward Snowden’s lawyer: mass surveillance undermines global IT security

Wizner alleged the structure of these mass surveillance programmes actually undermines the entire communications infrastructure of the internet.

He said some methods of mass collection require vulnerabilities in systems, such as zero day flaws.

“These are being discovered but not reported so they can be fixed. The NSA is a very active participant in a global market for these activities and stockpiles weaknesses to exploit.”

Wizner said the NSA has been inserting back doors in hardware and software to conduct surveillance.

“You can’t unlock the back door for one person and ensure no one else can come in.

“One of the most shocking things to come from the Edward Snowden revelations is that the NSA has been undermining encryption algorithms and standards to weaken them so its supercomputers can break encryption.”

Security is more important than surveillance

Wizner paraphrased security expert Bruce Schneider: “A system built for security is harder to survey. A system built for surveillance is harder to secure. Security is more important than surveillance.”

He said governments would be better served building up better defences than opening up systems to cyberattacks.

He added that a society where US public buses are already recording audio for conversations and a society where people will be tracked by an all-seeing, all-knowing government will chill dissent and reform.

He warned if a major terrorism event occurs in the US, it will result in all the mass surveillance data gathered so far being opened up to law agencies and officers right down to the local sheriff.

“I worry very much, not about if, but when a major terrorist attack occurs again in the US. When you join all of the dots they will always connect and all the data will be accessed and someone will say we had all the data in our possession to prevent the attack.

“It will be blamed on data protection rules that prevented access. The lock on the box will be broken open, information will be in the hands of the FBI, police and local sheriffs.

“If you think ‘Big Brother’ is a concern, be worried about Little Brother, as well.

“The balance of power will shift in ways that we are not prepared for. Anyone who thinks that it’s not going to happen here hasn’t read their history.”

Wizner said the NSA lost a lot of its legitimacy in the US when the public learned not only what was concealed but that they had been lied to about mass surveillance efforts.

“Governments that do that do not deserve our trust. Transparency is not a gift, it is the pillar of your own legitimacy.

“When Snowden said his mission had been accomplished, he meant he has given us what we need in order to have the conversations between us and government.”

Edward Snowden’s lawyer: NSA loves GCHQ

Wizner revealed that when it came to snooping, the NSA “loved GCHQ because they had few rules and had Tempura”.

He said The Guardian newspaper had done an heroic job in reporting on the revelations and how he couldn’t believe “the keystone cops coming in to smash hard drives” when everybody knows the data could be moved to The Guardian’s New York offices or elsewhere.

In a warning from history about how seemingly legitimate information can be put to nefarious use, Wizner said that prior to World War II, the Dutch government excelled at collecting birth and religious information on its citizens. “This was perfect for the Germans when they rolled in,” he said, referring to how the data was used to arrest Dutch Jewish citizens who subsequently perished in the Nazi death camps.

“We need to be thinking about the worst-case scenarios, even if right now you think they are preposterous. It is possible to gather information for medical purposes, but you need a real wall rather than allowing law enforcement to go on fishing expeditions.”

Wizner said the technology exists to encrypt telephone calls but governments don’t want this so they can do wiretaps.

“When Google decided to issue encryption by default that meant that around the world intelligence agencies couldn’t passively intercept it and now needed a warrant.”

He added that people need to see the connection between massive data attacks and hacks and the NSA’s surveillance methods. “They are two parts of the same coin.

“Intelligence agencies can do the most to secure the internet. They should prioritise defence.

“It’s not a sexy debate, the public sees surveillance and privacy as two separate things. The idea that we have nothing to hide is misguided. You might end up on a watchlist that will send you to a different line in the airport. You might find you have a low credit score. More and more, the concerns we call privacy might be called fairness and due process.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years