“We reserve the right to collect and indefinitely store all text and phone conversations received or sent while on the festival grounds.”
Roskilde Festival’s decision to publish its data policy on billboards around the site didn’t go down well with festival go-ers.
But of course it was a ruse, orchestrated by professional pranksters The Yes Men, who draw attention to injustice by staging humourous pranks. They were at Roskilde Festival to interview Edward Snowden live over video link from his home in Moscow. The whistleblower, formerly employed by US National Security Agency, single-handedly sparked a global uproar by leaking documents that exposed the indiscriminate and mass surveillance of citizens carried out by Western intelligence agencies.
The fundamental right to privacy
Hundreds of apprehensive festival-goers were gathered for the event, and when Snowden connected via Skype, the crowd erupted with applause. Snowden explained that while Roskilde wasn’t carrying out the surveillance they declared on the billboards, Western intelligence agencies were logging every website we visit and who we are talking to on our phones.
But why is this violating of our privacy such a big deal?
“The government’s say we are doing it to protect you, and that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. That line originated in Nazi Germany, that’s a line from Goebbels. It argues that the ends justify the means. But surveillance isn’t about privacy or hiding. It’s about protecting you and your ideas and community and family and yourself. Privacy is the foundation of all other rights. Freedom of speech means nothing if you are not free from prejudice of other peoples thoughts,” he says.
“Free press is not valuable if journalists can’t keep their investigations secret and find out about what the truth of the world really is and share it with us. Arguing that you shouldn’t care about privacy if you’ve got nothing to hide, is the same as saying you don’t shouldn’t care about free speech if you’ve got nothing to say.”
The problem with metadata
The surveillance debate is difficult because so complex. On the one hand, the intrusion into the lives of citizens is so great that it demands action. But the technical nature of the surveillance can make it difficult to relate to. Take metadata, the information from our mobile devices and computers, which serves as a log for who we talk to and which websites we visit. Surveillance agencies access this data to try and understand who we are and whether we pose a threat to the state. Facebook and Google also sell our metadata – such as our location data and search history – to advertisers so they can better target us.
“The problem with metadata is that it doesn’t enjoy any legal protection. When you hear the world metadata, no one knows what it is. But it means tracking records, your private records, indications of what you’ve been doing. Not what you said to your buddy, but the fact you talked to your buddy, that you called your mom, that you called a suicide hotline, where your phone went who it connected to, what political groups you associate with. Any of this things are metadata, and they enjoy no legal protection.”
Multinational corporations used to be able to freely transfer this data between the US and the EU under an agreement called Safe Harbour, but it was abolished in Europe following the revelations about invasive surveillance practices.
“The EU court of justice struck it down for violating human rights. Which rights? The right to be left alone unless you’re doing something wrong. They were supposed to create a new agreement but haven’t done that yet. They created a so-called privacy shield. But it isn’t, it’s a liability shield. It doesn’t require the US to change laws that allow indiscriminate mass surveillance. Those laws still in effect. You guys without a US passport, if they want your Google or Facebook data, they can do this without a warrant, they can do this without going to a court. This was my job at the NSA and this is what made me come forward,” says Snowden, adding that surveillance agencies can demand our information even if we are not doing anything wrong.
Ultimately, the violation of privacy is a matter of power and control.
“We know less and less about what’s going on in governments, while the new surveillance methods means they know more about us than ever in the history of humanity. Is that right? And in the very least shouldn’t we get a vote?”
Snowden points out that surveillance agencies are aware that mass surveillance is not very useful at preventing terrorism or crime. Despite mass surveillance, we have witnessed attacks in Copenhagen, Paris, Orlando and San Barnadino. Intelligence agencies are so weighed down with the volume of data, that the data becomes useless. Instead Snowden argues intelligence agencies should be more specific with who they target, and ask judges for a warrant to put individuals under surveillance.
“If you collect everything and monitor everyone, you understand nothing,” he says.
The crowd is quiet as Snowden talks, it’s easy to forget we are at a festival. They seem overwhelmingly supportive of Snowden, who just finished his third year of exile in Russia. He reiterates that he would happily return to the US for a trial, but the US government won’t offer him one. He faces life in jail.
“I would do it again and I’d come forward faster,” he says. “Sometimes the only moral decision is to break the law.”
He points out that the most important social justice movements started with law breaking.
“The law is there to protect institutions to protect order. This is in most cases a good thing. But the law can also perpetuate injustice. Helping people flee persecution in times of war, in Europe, has actually been a violation of law. Ending the prohibition of certain substances, loving the people you want to love, has been against the law all too frequently. Without the ability to break those laws and set that example, we lose the ability to move forward.”
Stand for something
Someone shouts “we support you!” and the crowd claps. But while he seems moved by the support from the crowd, he says he is less interested in his own fate than whether he can encourage young people to fight for a better society.
“I don’t care as much about me, whether I get pardoned or go to jail. What matters is the sort of world you guys build starting today. Are the people who come after us – our children, or my children – will they inherit the same lives we inherited, or are they going to live in a world that’s less free, safe and more watched?” he asks.
“This is what I learned from all these years at CIA at NSA. I talked to my co-workers about these things, they agreed the programmes were wrong, I wasn’t the only one thinking the programmes had gone too far, but there’s a difference between believing in something and standing for something.” M