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Edward Snowden: “Not all spying is bad”

“Not all spying is bad,” former government contractor Edward Snowden declared in an online Q&A Thursday afternoon.

However, the former contractor who exposed sweeping National Security Agency surveillance programs maintains that the NSA’s bulk data collection is unnecessary and doing more harm than good.

“When we’re sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want to (up to and including Angela Merkel’s phone, if reports are to be believed), there’s no excuse to wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri,” Snowden wrote on the website, in response to questions he took via Twitter.

Snowden, who leaked information about multiple surveillance programs to journalists last year, said the government conducts mass surveillance not because it should but because “new technologies make it easy and cheap.”

The U.S. intelligence community, he added, “is exceptionally well positioned to meet our intelligence requirements through targeted surveillance — the same way we’ve always done it — without resorting to the mass surveillance of entire populations.”

Snowden said the U.S. and other nations need to set new international norms that limit spying -- for instance, he said, it should be easy to agree that it should be against international law to hack critical infrastructure like hospitals and power stations. He suggested there be global funding committed to developing new security standards.

“The easiest way to ensure a country’s communications are secure is to secure them world-wide, and that means better standards, better crypto, and better research,” he wrote.

Snowden explained in the Q&A why he considers mass spying so harmful. Among other reasons, he said routine spying is “turning from the traditions of liberty” that America was founded on, and he said people should at least be able to debate that fundamental change.

The former contractor also noted that there’s evidence of abuse within these programs -- he noted that the NSA’s own inspector general found at least 12 instances in which NSA employees abused surveillance programs, most often to spy on significant others.

Snowden’s Q&A came on the same day the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board called on the Obama administration to abandon the NSA’s mass collection of phone metadata. The board said it could not find a single instance in which the program made a concrete difference in a  counterterrorism investigation.

Snowden said in response to the board’s report, “There is no simply justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a 0% success rate.”

On Friday, President Obama announced a series of reforms to U.S. surveillance programs, though he defended the value of the bulk metadata collection program. Mr. Obama said that nothing in the NSA review he ordered, “and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”

Snowden, who is currently in Russia, said that he wouldn’t be protected in the U.S. since whistleblower laws do not apply to private contractors in the national security arena.

“Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws,” he said. 

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