Roughly a week after U.S. President Barack Obama announced how the government will start its efforts on reforming its surveillance programs former NSA contractor and PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden has come forward and answered questions tweeted by people in a live Q&A session.
While Snowden appeared on British television during the Christmas season, the live chat on Thursday was his first since the last one in June 2013.
Of spying and how it becomes evil
Snowden shared his thoughts about spying when asked about the necessary coverage of national security.
"Not all spying is bad. The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents' communication every single day. This is done not because it's necessary - after all, these programs are unprecedented in US history, and were begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers - but because new technologies make it easy and cheap," said Snowden during the Q&A session.
Sonwden, however, emphasized that the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) cannot be condoned. "The fact that these records are gathered without the government having any reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying the seizure of data is so divorced from the domain of reason as to be incapable of ever being made lawful at all and this view was endorsed as recently as today by the federal government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight board," he said.
He also emphasized how the U.S. should just do targeted surveillance given its capabilities. Snowden calls for the federal government to be the leader of the global community in fixing wide scale violation of privacy due to indiscriminate collection of data of citizens.
On Jan. 17, the U.S. president had outlined several changes to how the government should conduct its surveillance programs.
"I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities. It will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances; our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of American companies; and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties," Obama said.
Obama also announced reforms that will be implemented to improve transparency of the government's surveillance activities and safeguard the privacy of people in the U.S. This will include declassification of orders and opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The president also disclosed that the U.S. aims to have additional protections when it comes to its activities that lead to interception of communications of overseas or foreign targets.
Protection for whistleblowers
Snowden also attacked the weaknesses and holes of the whistleblower protection laws in the U.S. and called for a comprehensive protection for those who are not afraid to speak out about anomalies in the system.
"One of the things that has not been widely reported by journalists is that whistleblower protection laws in the US do not protect contractors in the national security arena. There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective..." he said.
"...despite the fact that I could not legally go to the official channels that direct NSA employees have available to them, I still made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen. The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom...," he added.
Meanwhile, the government sees Snowden as a traitor after leaking classified information to unauthorized individuals. The president once declared that giving him pardon is impossible.
On the other hand, the attorney general is open to a conversation but there should be an assurance that the information still held by Snowden will be secured.
"My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive whistleblower protection act reform. If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the President seems to agree needed to be done," Snowden pointed out.
Harmful to society
When asked about the worst effects of the government's massive data siphoning program, the former NSA contractor, who now is in temporary asylum in Russia, cited the violation of one's freedom comes in two-fold.
"The first is the chilling effect, which is well-understood. Study after study has show that human behavior changes when we know we're being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are [sic] less free," he explained.
"The second, less understood but far more sinister effect of these classified programs, is that they effectively create "permanent records" of our daily activities, even in the absence of any wrongdoing on our part. This enables a capability called 'retroactive investigation,' where once you come to the government's attention, they've got a very complete record of your daily activity going back, under current law, often as far as five years," Snowden continued.
During the Q&A session, he also reiterated that he still believes in the system of values of the American people and that systems can be changed and senior officials be made accountable.