There's a lot of uncertainty and debate around mass surveillance programs. Why do they exist? Who is interested in all of this data, and what do they want to do with it? These are a few of the questions explored during an event entitled "Democracy Under Surveillance: A Conversation with Edward Snowden," held yesterday at the College of William & Mary .
The discussion was moderated by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and distinguished professor of government and public policy at W&M.
"Surveillance technologies have outpaced democratic controls," said Snowden, who joined the event via satellite. "A generation ago, surveillance was extremely expensive … there was a natural limitation because governments had to spend extraordinary sums to track individual people."
Today, the dynamic is reversed. One person in front of a monitor can track "an unimaginably large" number of people, he continued. The NSA's surveillance program, deployed in secret and with "serious constitutional implications," he said, is an example.
To illustrate the sheer amount of data the NSA has gathered, Snowden - who is in exile in Russia after copying and leaking classified information from the spy agency - showed a photo of the organization's Mission Data Repository, originally named the Massive Data Repository. The troves of data garnered through surveillance is held "just in case."
While the US government and others view such surveillance measures as necessary for security, Snowden offered the flip-side argument.
"Perhaps this is true," Snowden said. "But we should always be aware that we may not get to choose what it is we're actually being protected from." He urged helathy skepticism of government efforts. As part of his discussion on mass surveillance programs, and their infringement on constitutional rights, he posed the question: do these programs really protect people from harm? His answer: mass surveillance in the US has never made a concrete difference in saving lives.
"These programs are about power," he argued during the event. For more than a decade, he claimed, mass surveillance has not countered terrorism, despite being justified on that premise.
When asked by a W&M student whether increased surveillance could ever be justified, Snowden said he is less critical of targeted surveillance, in the event those watching use "the minimum amount of surveillance needed to achieve goals."
Targeted surveillance, he explained, has a "centuries-long track record" of saving lives. If someone has, for example, been associated with a terrorist group and demonstrated efforts to plan attacks, it's worth gathering information, Snowden said.