11 March 2014
Barton Gellman at SXSW
Snowden has shown the 'huge disparity of surveillance and power', says Gellman
Government needs reminding that they work for us, says Pulitzer-winning reporter
Barton Gellman, who describes Edward Snowden as ending an era of indifference
theguardian.com, Monday 10 March 2014 16.45 GMT
Encryptions tools must be simplified and made accessible for the mainstream,
Pulitzer-winning journalist Barton Gellman said on Monday, calling on the
tech industry to have the courage and ingenuity to help address the disparity
of power between the people and their government.
Addressing the SXSW festival shortly before Edward Snowden's live speech
by video, Gellman said we are a long way off simple, transparent encryption
tools. He cited Pew research which found that 88% of Americans say they have
taken steps to protect their privacy in some form.
"With all the user interface brains out there we could get easier tools,"
he said. "But it's not just the ability to encrypt, it's a frame of mind,
a workflow and a discipline that is alien to most people, and that is the
opposite to the open nature of the consumer internet. You could use Tor to
access a site a hundred times, but the 101st time you forget, you may as
well not have used Tor."
"There are people at this conference who have taken very considerable risk
to protect the privacy of their customers and have put themselves at the
edge of the door to jail and it will take courage as well as ingenuity to
change the way things work."
Metadata is more powerful than phone tapping
Gellman, who interviewed Snowden in Russia in 2013, said Snowden has highlighted
the peak indifference to security. Metadata is incredibly potent as a method
of surveillance, yet most internet users fail to understand how powerful
it can be in aggregate.
"One of the great gifts of Snowden is that he has shown what surveillance
can do," he said. Gellman told of a colleague who said he wasn't concerned
about metadata and his privacy, a colleague who used Twitter heavily and
with location stamps.
So Gellman downloaded three months worth of Twitter location stamps and plotted
them on a Google map, plotting the times, frequency and significance of each
location. His horrified colleague consequently changed much of his behaviour
"I would rather someone listened in to all my phone calls than accessed my
metadata - you can learn much more about me from that metadata."
Whistleblowers - traitors or lantern bearers?
Gellman doesn't like the word 'whistleblower'. On one side are many in government
who say he signed an agreement not to disclose information, and that disclosing
specific unlawful behaviour, or waste, should be dealt with by internal channels.
Snowden himself did speak to around ten supervisors and to colleagues informally
with some questions about their work, and at one point asked if what they
were doing would pass 'the front page test'.
"That's a pretty bold thing to do when you're gathering documents and speaking
to three reporters," he said. "But the illegality test is too narrow.
"If the idea is genuine that the government works for us, and information
is power, we are living inside a one-way mirror because they know more and
more about us and we know less and less about them. There's a huge disparity
"Do we think it's a good idea to listen to every call, to bust encryption
standards... if it's a big policy question, and stuff is being done behind
our backs that might shock us if we knew about it, there's pretty good reason
to put it out there. Forget whistleblower - it should be lantern holder."
How has the NSA surveillance story stayed live?
"Snowden paid very careful attention to what had happened to other whistleblowers
that hadn't had a long-term impact, and was careful to produce the documents...
If Snowden had asked me 6-8 months later [if this story and still been live]
but he has got to have exceed every plausible estimation about impact. It's
because he didn't realise the documents all at once."
That pace was less about Snowden releasing the documents slowly but about
the work journalists need to do to verify and interrogate before they publish.
Doctorow said he was most concerned by the programmes known as Bullrun in
the US and Edgehill in the UK, which saw the NSA spend $250,000 a year spend
trying to sabotage security standards and have backdoors built into security
"In the second world war, countries had their own encryption tools but now
we share networks and tools, and if you can undermine the random number generator
- if you can make it less random - and that's what the NSA was doing by trying
to trick, buy or persuade companies to make their encryption more breakable,"
said Gellman. "They would create an encryption standard that only they would
break - that would let them be both information assurance and signal
Was Prism effectively a front for the more substantial fibre optic and undersea
cable tapping? Interviewing Gellman, Cory Doctorow said: "The reason for
Prism was to give them a plausible reason to know about the things they knew
from the fibre taps and not alerting the companies."
When Prism started Twitter barely existed, Facebook was limited to college
campuses and Google was tiny.
How did Snowden get the documents out?
Asked whether he has been harassed when writing about Snowden, Gellman said
"I have not been harassed. I've had some interesting exchanges with government
reps of various temperatures. But I speak to them before every story. If
they want to demonstrate falsity I want to hear it, and if they want to tell
me about specific damage I would be doing then it want to hear that too.
I get warnings about the espionage act and I assume that I'm more interesting
than I used to be. And Google has warned me that they believe a state-sponsored
hacker is attempting to compromise my computer... I assume that is more likely
to be a foreign agency."
"Do I worry about doing harm and putting lives at risk? Of course I do. There
are things in the documents I don't think should be published and there are
things Snowden doesn't think should be published...
"He's a very smart guy on a lot of levels, and a very nimble mind. There
lots of boundaries he draws with me, and as a reporter I look for side-channel
attacks... Genghis Khan didn't try to known down the Great Wall of China
- he bribed the guards and put up ladders. But he Snowden won't tell me how
he got the documents out, for example."