Can’t Quite Explain Why The NSA Scandal Makes You So Uncomfortable? I’ve Got Something For You.

I’m not saying you’re going to make it to the end of this video ready to dress up as Edward Snowden for Halloween — I realize that’s a big ask — but at the very least, you might have a better understanding of what our government is doing.

In this interview, Glenn Greenwald (the reporter who first broke the Snowden revelations) lays out exactly what is so upsetting. At 1:34, Greenwald explains what a surveillance state is, and at 4:57, he gets into the really scary stuff. But scary in a "Schoolhouse Rock!" meets "1984" kind of way.

Listen, this is complex stuff, and there are smart people from all sides who are unsure how they should feel about Snowden. But it’s important to comprehend what’s going on so we at least know where to point our pitchforks.

Show Transcript Hide Transcript

Jian Ghomeshi: Hello, Glenn.

Glenn Greenwald: Good morning.

Jian Ghomeshi: You've been listening in.

Glenn Greenwald: I have.

Jian Ghomeshi: I have some questions for you, but what's your first reaction to what you've been listening into?

Glenn Greenwald: well, as you indicated, General Hayden was the chief of both the NSA and the CIA during the most radical abuses of the War on Terror and is very adept at presenting a public image of these programs that is wildly at odds with the actual reality that takes place in the dark. And, unfortunately for General Hayden but fortunately for the rest of the world, we now have for the first time the actual evidence of what it is that this surveillance system is and it's not this reasonable, targeted, discriminating system that targets terrorists. It is instead a system of suspicionless surveillance that puts entire populations, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who have done nothing wrong under a microscope and stores, and monitors, and analyzes their communications. And not a single word that he said, even if you want to assume it's all true, remotely justifies that.

Jian Ghomeshi: You've said that a surveillance state is menacing to basic political liberties. Before we get into that, in your view, what is the difference between state surveillance, which is the topic of this debate, and a surveillance state?

Glenn Greenwald: State surveillance can be perfectly legitimate. Everybody, including me, and including Edward Snowden and everybody else who's been critical of the NSA readily acknowledges everybody wants governments to be listening in on the conversations to the extent they can of Osama Bin Laden and his associates. That is targeted, legitimate surveillance. A surveillance state, by contrast, is a society which decrees that there is no such thing as individual privacy, that all communications that take place by and between other human beings are the business of the state, that the state both can and should invade those communications at will. That is a society in which we as Americans live, as Canadians live, and now the rest of the world as well.

Jian Ghomeshi: And when does one become the other?

Glenn Greenwald: When it ceases to be targeted, discriminating surveillance directed at people who are actually doing something wrong it becomes a mass indiscriminate system that targets everybody.

Jian Ghomeshi: You're a longtime privacy proponent. You've built a reputation as a critic of large-scale state surveillance, particularly after your work reporting on the Snowden leaks. In your view, here's the broad question, how does state surveillance impact our individual freedoms?

Glenn Greenwald: People often like to be dismissive of privacy. They say things like, "Well, if you've done nothing wrong you should have nothing to hide," and yet all of us, including the people who say that, fully understand instinctively how central privacy is to human freedom. We all put passwords on our email accounts and our social media accounts. We put locks on our bedroom and our bathroom doors. We do all sorts of things when we think nobody is watching, from trivial acts like singing songs or dancing, to more substantive acts like discussing things with lawyers and psychologists that we would never want other people to know. There is an entire world of behavior as human beings that we want to keep completely private that has nothing to do with "doing something wrong." It is only when we can act without prying eyes casting judgement upon us that we can engage in human exploration, or dissent, or creativity, or what it means to be a free individual. When you take that way, when you subject all forms of human communication to the knowing eyes of the state, whether they're watching or not, the mere possibility that they can be, we lose enormous amounts of what it means to be a free individual because we start engaging in conduct that we think other people want us to engage in as opposed to the conduct that we ourselves choose to.

Jian Ghomeshi: Talk to me specifically about the Internet. In past interview you talked about how the Internet was an important space for you to develop your own identity of politics. How is that at risk here?

Glenn Greenwald: One of the crucial liberating aspects of the Internet that made it so unique when it first emerged was the ability to explore anonymously. You could go and read things that you wouldn't want other people knowing you're reading. You could go and say things or talk to other people that you wouldn't anyone else knowing that you're doing. You could explore all sorts of parts of the world that you might be inhibited or otherwise embarrassed to think about and interact with. The only way that works, let alone the more substantive value of being able to organize political dissent and political activism and opposition to those in power, the only way all of that works is if you can do it with pure freedom and without people knowing what it is you're doing. Once you turn the Internet, you degrade the Internet from this free wilderness of ways to explore and to engage in creativity, into system of mass coercive surveillance, unlike anything humanity has ever known before, you degrade the Internet from an instrument of great freedom and creativity into one of great social control.

Jian Ghomeshi: But we don't have pure freedom. We don't have that autonomy. I mean, we've talked about it dozens of times on this show. You know, you use your credit card at the store and you're information goes everywhere. We already give away loads of information online knowingly, unknowingly. Why not in the name of security as well? What's the difference there for you?

Glenn Greenwald: There is a massive difference between using your credit card to purchase a shirt or a pair of shoes at a mall and having one single credit card company or bank know about that one discrete transaction and then going and making a phone call where one telephone company knows about the call that you made and having these discrete and isolated instances of people and companies knowing what you've done and having, on the other hand, one centralized repository where every single thing that you do in your life electronically is stored and monitored, which is what a surveillance state is. There are definitely threats to privacy that come from corporate gathering of data, but there is a radically different kind of threat, a worse threat, when it's the state that gathers everything. It is the state that can put you in prison, that can deprive you of your property. In the United States even deprive you of your life in a way that corporations can't do, which is what makes surveillance in the hands of the state so much more dangerous.

Jian Ghomeshi: To pick up on what Michael Hayden was saying or insinuating, as much as we want our emails to be private, we also want to remain safe, and some would say we'd be naive not to point out that national and international threats exist. There was 9/11, the Boston bombing, last year in Canada two men were arrested in connection with a plan to attack via rail train in Toronto. Can there exist a balance between protection and freedom? And, if so, what does that look like for you?

Glenn Greenwald: Sure, I mean, first of all, very easily you can have the state target those people who belong to radical groups who are seemingly plotting to engage in terrorist attacks without subjecting the communications of every single human being in the society and on the planet to this form of massive state surveillance.

Jian Ghomeshi: How do you do that? The state surveillance becomes more targeted? Is that the idea?

Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, it becomes more targeted. You listen into members who are of Al Qaeda, are people who are associating with members of terrorist organizations using traditional means of intelligence and law enforcement rather than having this ubiquitous system of suspicionless surveillance, which is what we now have. But the other important thing to realize here is terrorism is a word that packs an incredibly potent emotional punch. I was in Manhattan on 9/11. To this day, when someone mentions 9/11 I remember all of those emotions. But as citizens it's our responsibility to rationally assess these risks and not to let ourselves be fear mongered, which is what people like General Hayden like to do. The reality is is that terrorism is a thing the U.S. government uses to justify everything it has done, from torture, to Guantanamo, to rendition, to invading Iraq. It's a tactic. It's a slogan and not a rational argument. This surveillance program has very little to do with actual terrorism. It's directed at oil companies like Petrobras in Brazil or banking systems or entire populations that have nothing to with national security threats.

Jian Ghomeshi: I got one minute left with you here. Let me ask you a big question. Do I have one minute? Yeah, I have one minute left. We often hear about and we talk about the end of privacy. Are you hopeful that we could actually reverse the idea that we no longer have privacy?

Glenn Greenwald: Absolutely, and I think that's one of the reasons why the world owed such a debt of gratitude to Edward Snowden. His disclosures, done so heroically and self-sacrifcingly, have enabled us to know the threat that is now posed to our privacy in a way that we didn't know before, which in turn let's us take all sorts of steps to reestablish privacy, whether it's using encryption technology, making it more user-friendly, demanding that our governments protect our privacy rather than invade it. There's a major debate, as you indicated, and all sorts of reform movements designed to do just that and we now have the tools, as a result of these disclosures to do that.

Jian Ghomeshi: Good to have you here.

Glenn Greenwald: Great to be here.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This segment comes to us from Canada, care of "Q with Jian Ghomeshi."

Greenwald has a book out called "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," where he presumably writes a lot more about Edward Snowden, the NSA, and U.S. surveillance state. How did I know that? I dunno. I’m a good guesser.

Thumbnail image by David Drexler (check out his Flickr), used under a Creative Commons license.

May 22, 2014

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