When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed classified details about the agency’s mass surveillance programs, it created a media firestorm. Perhaps no one knows this controversy better than one of the men who published the leaked documents, journalist Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald and fellow experts on security and technology spoke about the risks of large-scale government surveillance at a November 14 Fordham Law event hosted by the School’s Center on National Security, in association with PEN America Center and the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology. The event, “They’re Watching Us: So What? Assessing the Dangers of the New Surveillance Powers,” was moderated by Suzanne Nossel of PEN America and drew a capacity crowd to McNally Amphitheatre. Author and NSA expert James Bamford; novelist, playwright, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman; and computer security and privacy specialist Bruce Schneier rounded out the panel.
Greenwald, who lives in Brazil and joined the panel via Skype, kicked off the event. Appearing on a pair of television screens, he spoke about the ongoing debate surrounding surveillance and the U.S government’s aggressive response to journalists who are involved with individuals like Snowden who leak classified information. For Greenwald, the Department of Justice’s refusal to ensure that he could return safely to the United States prevented him from attending the panel in person. According to Greenwald, whose work has largely been dedicated to exposing NSA activity, the danger with surveillance comes from the ability of the government to fortify itself at the expense of the liberty of its citizens. “It’s really in the realm of privacy where dissent and creativity and exploration exclusively reside,” Greenwald said. “A society in which there is this ubiquitous surveillance is a society that loses an essential part of what it means to be free.”
Dorfman, a native Chilean, was equally adamant that surveillance threatens freedom. “The question is ‘So what?’ and ‘What’s the harm?’ These questions would be greeted with derision and astonishment in Chile.” Dorfman drew a chilling comparison between the United States and the oppressive police state of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, suggesting that, in America, unchecked NSA surveillance could lead to a state of fear in which citizens will willingly renounce their freedom in the name of security.
In outlining a brief history of the NSA, panelist Bamford, who has written several books on the secretive agency, said that the surveillance activities of the NSA are far from a new phenomenon. He noted that organizations like the NSA remain powerful governmental institutions due to the fear they help create. “The terror hysteria, the fear mongering—that’s what generates the public support for these surveillance methods.”
Schneier echoed the sentiments of his co-panelists. “When you’re afraid, you’ll give up anything,” he said. He argued that the NSA has turned the Internet into a surveillance platform, one where “search became cheaper than sort.” However, Schneier and the other panelists found some cause for hope in the recent exposures of NSA activity, which he believes have changed the cost/benefit analysis of surveillance, with increased exposure of the program making it more politically costly to continue.
“On the optimism/pessimism question (about the potential of reining in the broad powers of the NSA), what will ultimately determine that is whether we finally bring transparency and accountability to these officials who wield the greatest power, because right now they have none,” said Greenwald in his closing statement. “That’s been our greatest objective.”
The panel was broadcast live and can be viewed here.