Edward Snowden addressing an audience live in Berlin via video link on Saturday evening

Edward Snowden: ‘we must seize the means of communication’ to protect basic freedoms

Renowned NSA whistleblower calls for ‘radical’ popular action to take control of information technologies

Nafeez Ahmed
Mar 13, 2016 · 11 min read

This exclusive is published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowd-funded investigative journalism project for the global commons.

A gathering of journalists, hackers and whistleblowers in Berlin this weekend heard former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, issue a call for citizens to find ways to take direct control over the information technologies we use everyday.

“We need to think about how we got here. We talk about legal reform, but these weren’t authorised in the first place… Reforming things within the system is the ideal, within the system. It’s the way it should work, the way our societies are designed to function.

What happens when the systems fail to function?

We have this natural inclination to think that these are departures from the natural order of things, and everything will be better again, and we can rely once more on the system.

But, it turns out, that abuse is the byproduct of power… Whenever we have increasingly small groups with power, we have abuses of power. The mechanism today is technology…

There’s an intersection of technology and access to information in society. The internet is the shorthand for it… It increasingly effects all of us, but we have less and less control over it.”

On Friday, the founding publisher of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, expressed similar concerns in his live video address from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where a UN panel recently concluded he is effectively being arbitrarily detained. That conclusion was reached, Assange said, “despite improper pressure from the US and UK governments on the UN.”

Threat to democracy

Both Assange and Snowden argued that the rapid centralisation of control of information communication technologies within a private corporate sector increasingly enmeshed with the security-state, represents a fundamental threat to functioning democracies, particularly a free press.

“… is a threat to the ability of journalists to do their jobs, to guarantee their material and to protect their sources. Without that protection, we simply won’t have a functioning free press… A lack of safeguards for all journalists will have profound consequences for the public’s right to know in the UK.”

Metadata, of course, is already used in a wide range of contexts by the intelligence community to identify not just terrorism suspects, but also activists, human rights groups, and others critical of government policy.


Edward Snowden advocated the careful use and advancement of encryption technologies by journalists to help protect sources, but noted that technology alone is not the answer.

Radical transformation

Edward Snowden also warned against assuming that attempting to counter state surveillance through encryption alone would be a panacea, advocating the need to fundamentally challenge the centralisation of power over information technologies in state-corporate hands.

“We’re reliant on for-profit groups corporations like Apple to defend our rights. We have to rely on the protocols and systems that are underlying our communications.

We need to get more radical as technologists and journalists…

There have been extraordinary imbalances of power throughout history. I’m not a Communist, but there were people who argued we need to seize the means of production. We’re rapidly approaching the point where we need to seize the means of our communication.”

The reason?

Privacy or security?

Snowden dismissed the idea that privacy or liberty stood somehow counterposed to genuine security.

“At the end of the day, we have to make a decision. Do we want to be a controlled society? Or do we want to live in a free one? Because we can’t have both.”

In a panel on Friday, Thomas Drake — the former senior NSA executive who inspired Snowden to blow the whistle by exposing the flaws of the agency’s billion dollar Trailblazer mass surveillance project — recalled how his NSA bosses cynically saw the 9/11 intelligence failure as an opportunity to increase the agency’s budget dramatically.

“I couldn’t believe it when my supervisor described 9/11 as ‘a gift to the NSA.’”

The idea that mass surveillance has any prospect of genuinely keeping us safe is thus deeply questionable. The fundamental problem with the insistence on eliminating privacy in the name of security is its totalitarian impact across our entire societies.

“Privacy is the right from which all others are derived. Without privacy there is only society, only the collective, which makes them all be and think alike. You can’t have anything yourself, you can’t have your own opinions, unless you have a space that belongs only to you.

Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say…”

Political dissent

If mass surveillance was simply about thwarting terrorism, its targets would not consistently be political dissidents, Snowden argued, pointing to the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King Jr — described by Snowden as the “greatest civil rights leader my country has ever seen.”

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Nafeez Ahmed

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Systems journalist. Crowdfunding investigations: http://patreon.com/nafeez

INSURGE intelligence

We are crowdfunding adversarial investigations into power, to empower people and save the planet. Join us via www.patreon.com/nafeez