Snowden: “Mass Surveillance Isn’t About Public Safety. It’s About Power.”


If Bitcoin conference keynotes are like headliners at a music festival, Edward Snowden was Bitcoin 2019’s Jack White. Or Childish Gambino, or the entire Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Paul McCartney — or a combination of all of these.

Snowden’s fireside chat with BTC Inc CEO David Bailey drew a packed house on the second day of the Bitcoin 2019 conference in San Francisco. Not at all shocking, Edward Snowden, for his 2013 whistle-blowing on the U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of American citizens, is nothing short of an icon in the cypherpunk and crypto community. His commitments to privacy and individual liberties — and his martyrdom for defending these tenets against the government’s pervasive reach — speak to the ethos that makes Bitcoin so attractive to most of us.

“You have a lot of fans here,” Bailey said about halfway through the talk.

“Yeah, who knew?” Snowden responded wryly.

Of course, Snowden couldn’t attend the conference in person. He’s still in political exile for “crimes against the state,” as a consequence of leaking information in 2013. Snowden’s whistle-blowing broke the conversational seal on privacy rights in the age of information. He continued this conversation during his keynote, especially as it relates to Bitcoin, its ideals and the future of civil liberties in this age of surveillance.

The Role of Privacy

“What is the role of privacy in society and why do we need it?” Bailey asked at the opening of the discussion.

Snowden responded with a reference to ShapeShift. He argued that the trading platform, which began as an experiment in libertarian ideals for seamless, anonymous trading between cryptos, had buckled under the influence of government officials. Like others before and after it, ShapeShift implemented Know Your Customer (KYC) to counter the exchange’s reputation as a hub for washing coins and laundering money.

“This is the status quo,” Snowden declared, regarding KYC’s virtual gaze. “This is the way that banking works.”

He went on to contrast the freedom to transact with the freedom of information “You can say whatever you want, and the worst that will happen is that you’re going to get deplatformed — kicked off YouTube, Twitter. There’s a level of interference, but it’s coming from private companies, not governments,” he said.

Money, however, is different. It’s not nearly as free as information, because both banks as private companies and the government have final say over your money. Your accounts can be frozen at the drop of a subpoena or at the whim of a banker. 

“To me this is the most interesting thing about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is free money. And I don’t mean that because the price is rising,” Snowden said to applause. “What I mean is that it is the first free money, right? You are able to exchange and interact permissionlessly. When I think about privacy, about liberty, that’s what this is all about: What does ‘liberty’ mean? It’s freedom from permission. In a way we can experiment, we can engage, we can try things. We can even fail! 

“This ability to act without harming someone else, this is the basis of all rights. When you talk about due process, right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — whatever it is, the reason we have these rights is because they are codifying the right to self. Privacy is that thing that says you belong to you rather than to society.”

Edward Snowden at Bitcoin 2019
A packed house takes in Edward Snowden’s conversation with David Bailey at BItcoin 2019 in San Francisco

The Age of Mass Digital Surveillance

In the age of technology, mass digital surveillance is quickly phasing out the freedoms of our every day. But they’re not just being choked out by governments and tech companies, Snowden warned. Users themselves are complicit in relinquishing their individual rights to privacy.

“It used to be that if the government wanted to watch you, they’d have teams of people to do this. Now, all of this happens with devices that we use ourselves. We are creating a permanent record of our private lives. Once we do that, privacy stops being the status quo — liberty stops being the natural state of things — and now it is a point of tension with the current system.”

This point of tension is between the governments, Facebooks and banks of the world that now own slices of the privacy pie — the data and private information that internet users trade in exchange for services. And while Snowden said that governments typically won’t tap into this information “unless the law permits it” because it’s expensive and time consuming to do so, the advancement of AI and machine learning will make basic invasions of privacy more feasible in the future.

This privacy as a right matters, he continued. Not just because governments are surveilling us, but because they chose to do so without public consensus.

“2013 wasn’t about surveillance. Surveillance was the mechanism used to discuss a conversation that was affecting all of us. And that is that our governments — even in free and open societies — are becoming increasingly comfortable with making decisions without involving the democratic process. We didn’t vote on these systems; the courts didn’t rule on whether they were unconstitutional.”

Less than undemocratic, these unilateral decisions threaten the well-being of the disempowered minority (minority here being the general public). 

“Without privacy, we have no power. Because privacy gives us agency. Without privacy, the rest of our rights don’t have meaning. Because what is a right? A right exists to protect — but not the majority, because the majority doesn’t need protection. Rights exist to protect the minority from the majority,” Snowden said to conclude his answer to Bailey’s first question.

Yes, all of that — what Snowden called “a kind of long-winded answer” — was a single answer.

How Do Governments Attack Bitcoin?

“Anybody who is working in the crypto space on the institutional side will tell you that the first thing they go after is privacy,” he said, referring again to ShapeShift. “Lack of privacy is an exercising threat to Bitcoin. Privacy is the only protection that Bitcoin has for the users, and they are shaving this protection away.”

Governments, then, will take aim at the on- and off-ramps and dismantle user privacy on these platforms. This is Bitcoin’s primary existential threat, Snowden claimed, and it’s a threat that attacks something worth guarding because “privacy isn’t about hiding something; it’s about protecting something.”

So how do you protect it? Either by encouraging adoption of peer-to-peer transfer of bitcoin so that people can circumvent fiat ramps, or structuring the technology in such a way “that the users cannot prove the provenance of their fund beyond the last transaction.” This will keep funds from being blacklisted, a problem that’s only going to get worse if we rely on centralized, state-regulated platforms, he said.

There’s also a third option: Lobby so that we have a seat at the table when the laws are drafted.

“What we don’t see in the crypto space right now and need, which is honestly unforgivable given how many new millionaires and billionaires we have, is that you guys need to start lobbying for more favorable jurisdictions. 

“The whole point of this is that they won’t interfere with your business. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing transactions in the U.S., or Germany, or anywhere, unless you’re working under the previous model, where you’re trying to be the next Bank of America, the next First National. But the world doesn’t need the First National. It needs the first post-national.”

This was met with a bout of enthusiastic applause, to which Snowden responded by saying companies like ShapeShift becoming complacent and cowing to regulators “is why we can’t have nice things.”

“Mass Surveillance Isn’t About Public Safety. It’s About Power.” 

Bailey then asked about Bitcoin use in ransomware attacks, specifically The Shadow Brokers who stole then sold what Snowden called “an arsenal of [the NSA’s] digital weapons” for bitcoin.

While this attack is certainly an affront to the U.S. government, Snowden believes it exposes both the weak points of a surveillance state and also the failure of monolithic entities to protect even the most important of assets.

“The NSA created these things, and they couldn’t control them,” he said. And further, even though the attackers traded the tools for bitcoin, authorities could never trace the transaction trail back to them.

“You can have the most powerful surveillance technology in the world, but it’s not going to solve the world’s problems. It’s only going to solve a few,” he said, poignantly adding that none of this technology could even trace the virtual burglars who stole it.

“Shadow Brokers didn’t get caught because mass surveillance isn’t enough. Mass surveillance isn’t about public safety. It’s about power. It means mass surveillance won’t solve our problems; it’ll only make them worse.”

“We Don’t Have to Accept This Status Quo”

Snowden’s talk began and concluded with the same theme: We don’t have to accept this new status quo. “We can live in a world where privacy is a privilege. It needs to be a world where privacy is a right,” he said simply. 

To Snowden, Satoshi, who created a now multibillion-dollar network all without exposing his true identity, is a testament to the fact that “if you’re careful, if you learn how the system works better than the people who are exploiting it to harm you and better than the people who built it, you can use it to your advantage.”

Bailey concluded the talk by asking Snowden if he holds bitcoin, to which the whistle-blower prudently replied, “As a privacy advocate, I deny having cryptocurrency.”

But he also offered this glimpse into his historic information leak: The encrypted chat software that he used to tip Glenn Greenwald and other Guardian journalists of the NSA’s privacy abuses were bought with bitcoin.

So for Snowden, bitcoin gave him the freedom to transact, which in turn gave him the freedom to share information to which he felt the public should be entitled. Censorship-resistant money was used to resist censored information, and on this note, the crowd rounded out Snowden’s discussion with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

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