Everything We Learned From Edward Snowden’s Reddit AMA

Citizenfour’s Glen Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Snowden take on Reddit.

February 23, 2015

Last night Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald picked up an Oscar win for Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal. It airs tonight on HBO at 9 p.m., and to mark the occasion Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden logged into Reddit for a freewheeling AMA. Here's a few of our favorite answers.

If he could rewind time and do anything differently, Snowden would have come forward sooner

Snowden: "Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it's very important: Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back.

Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government's own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it's a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it's hard to peel that back. Don't let it happen in your country."

Laura Poitras would like to thank encryption services for making this film possible

Poitras: "It would have been impossible for us to work on the NSA stories and make Citizenfour without many encryption tools that allowed us to communicate more securely. In fact, in the credits we thank several free software projects for making it all possible. I can't really get into our specific security process, but on the The Intercept's security experts, Micah Lee, wrote a great post about helping Glenn and I when we first got in contact with Snowden.

Neil Patrick Harris' reason/treason joke got a chuckle out of Snowden

Snowden: "To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don't think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that's not so bad. My perspective is if you're not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don't care enough. 'If this be treason, then let us make the most of it.'"

Greenwald: "I learned of NPH's joke after I left the stage (he said it as we were walking off). I was going to tweet something about it and decided it was too petty and inconsequential even to tweet about - just some lame word-play Oscar joke from a guy who had just been running around onstage in his underwear moments before. So I forgot about it. My reaction was similar to Ed's, though I did think the joke was lame."

Snowden seems to be making the most of his new home in Moscow

Snowden: "Moscow is the biggest city in Europe. A lot of people forget that. Shy of Tokyo, it's the biggest city I've ever lived in. I'd rather be home, but it's a lot like any other major city," he says. And in fact, he says, "In the past week, it's actually been warmer than the East Coast. Wasn't expecting that one."

Regardless, Greenwald thinks Snowden should be allowed to return to the United States

Greenwald: "Edward Snowden should not be forced to choose between living in Russia or spending decades in a cage inside a high-security American prison.

DC officials and journalists are being extremely deceitful when they say: 'if he thinks he did the right thing,he should come back and face trial and argue that.'

Under the Espionage Act, Snowden would be barred even from raising a defense of justification. The courts would not allow it. So he'd be barred from raising the defense they keep saying he should come back and raise.

The goal of the US government is to threaten, bully and intimidate all whistleblowers—which is what explains the mistreatment and oppression of the heroic Chelsea Manning—because they think that climate of fear is crucial to deterring future whistleblowers.

As long as they embrace that tactic, it's hard to envision them letting Ed return to his country. But we as citizens should be much more interested in the question of why our government threatens and imprisons whistleblowers."

Snowden doesn't have all the answers

Snowden: "One of the biggest problems in governance today is the difficulty faced by citizens looking to hold officials to account when they cross the line. We can develop new tools and traditions to protect our rights, and we can do our best to elect new and better representatives, but if we cannot enforce consequences on powerful officials for abusive behavior, we end up in a system where the incentives reward bad behavior post-election. That's how we end up with candidates who say one thing but, once in power, do something radically different. How do you fix that? Good question."

Things have changed since Snowden's document dump

Greenwald: "I think much has changed. The US Government hasn't restricted its own power, but it's unrealistic to expect them to do so. There are now court cases possible challenging the legality of this surveillance - one federal court in the US and a British court just recently found this spying illegal. Social media companies like Facebook and Apple are being forced by their users to install encryption and other technological means to prevent surveillance, which is a significant barrier. Nations around the world (such as Brazil and Germany) are working together in unison to prevent US hegemony over the internet and to protect the privacy of their own citizens. And, most of all, because people now realize the extent to which their privacy is being compromised, they can - and increasingly are - using encryption and anonymizers to protect their own privacy and physically prevent mass surveillance (see here: http://www.wired.com/2014/05/sandvine-report/).

All of these changes are very significant. And that's to say nothing of the change in consciousness around the world about how hundreds of millions of people think about these issues. The story has been, and continues to be, huge in many countries outside the US."

Snowden: "To dogpile on to this, many of the changes that are happening are invisible because they're happening at the engineering level. Google encrypted the backhaul communications between their data centers to prevent passive monitoring. Apple was the first forward with an FDE-by-default smartphone (kudos!). Grad students around the world are trying to come up with ways to solve the metadata problem (the opportunity to monitor everyone's associations -- who you talk to, who you sleep with, who you vote for -- even in encrypted communications).

The biggest change has been in awareness. Before 2013, if you said the NSA was making records of everybody's phonecalls and the GCHQ was monitoring lawyers and journalists, people raised eyebrows and called you a conspiracy theorist. Those days are over. Facts allow us to stop speculating and start building, and that's the foundation we need to fix the internet. We just happened to be the generation stuck with fighting these fires."

Lead Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Posted: February 23, 2015
Everything We Learned From Edward Snowden’s Reddit AMA