Edward Snowden has given an interview to The Guardian from his Russian hideout and warned that, among other things, those naked selfies people send to their loved ones are common currency among NSA staff.
"You've got young enlisted guys, 18 to 22 years old. They've suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all of your private records," he said in the video interview.
"During the course of their daily work they stumble upon something that is completely unrelated to their work in any sort of necessary sense – for example, an intimate nude photo of someone of in a sexually compromising situation, but they're extremely attractive. So what they do? They turn around in their chair and show their co-worker."
Such activities are seen as a "fringe benefit" of the job among certain analysts he claimed, and the internal auditing procedures at the NSA are so lax that there's no comeback if they swap nudie pics. As proof of the laxity shown by the NSA, he pointed out that he, a 29-year-old, had managed to walk out of the agency's offices with a large chunk of their internal files.
There were plenty of people within the NSA who are disturbed by the extent of surveillance the agency carries out, Snowden said. He claimed he had spoken privately to ten people within the organization when he was still employed there about the troubling aspects of the job.
Snowden also criticized his Russian hosts, saying that a rash of laws passed in the country will severely curtail press freedom and the human rights of its citizens. He denied passing security secrets to the Putin government, saying that had he done so then the US would have been alerted when its own espionage channels went dark.
Snowden said he spends a lot of time working on privacy software in his Russian bolt hole, and avoids services like Google and Skype when doing so. Any unencrypted traffic was fair game for surveillance, he said, adding that Western technology companies were doing a good job of encrypting as much stuff as possible.
Spideroak v Dropbox
He highlighted cloud storage provider Spideroak as a case in point. The firm stores data for backups, but in an encrypted format that only the customer holds, so that it cannot be forced to hand over encryption keys should government investigators come calling.
Snowden was scathing about Spideroak rival Dropbox, calling it a "PRISM wannabe." He noted that the firm has just appointed former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to its board, who Snowden described as "the most anti-privacy official you can imagine."
People and companies will have to get a lot more tech savvy if they want to maintain a healthy level of privacy, thanks to extent of the surveillance carried out by NSA and other spying agencies, we're told.
Accountants, lawyers, and doctors should all level up their skills, Snowden said, and journalists in particular should be aware that a single slip up could compromise their sources.
It could be that by collecting and sifting through everyone's personal data that terrorist attacks could be prevented, he opined. But that has to be weighed against an individual's right to a private life. The US and other governments were taking the view that while a private handwritten journal may be private, any internet communications were fair game to law enforcement.
He said that he had no plans to return to the US at present, since this would involve going on trial for espionage – a charge which would not allow him to present a public interest defense for his actions. Even if he did go to trial it would be difficult to get a fair hearing.
"I think it would be very difficult to find any 12 Americans in the US right now who would uniformly agree that the last year's revelations about the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance programs did not serve the public interest," he said.
"I'm not going to presume to know what a jury would think, or to say what they should or should not think. But I think it's fair to say that there are reasonable and enduring questions about the extent of these surveillance programs, how they should be applied and that should be the focus of any trial."
Snowden seemed remarkably sanguine about his prospects. If he ended up in a cell in Guantanamo he said he "could live with that." ®