Edward Snowden’s Lawyer: ‘Snowden Doesn’t Want Us to Protect Him’

Edward Snowden’s lead attorney Ben Wizner spoke to The Quint on privacy, data protection and WhatsApp ‘censorship’.

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Why doesn’t whistle-blower Edward Snowden want his team of lawyers to protect him?

Snowden’s lead attorney, Ben Wizner, tells The Quint’s reporter:

Edward Snowden has instructed me that his own fate and future shouldn’t be our (his lawyers’) main concern. What Snowden mostly wanted from us as lawyers is advice on how he can be a more effective advocate for surveillance reform, and democratic reform.  
Ben Wizner, American Civil Liberties Union, and Lead Attorney to Edward Snowden

The Quint spoke to Ben Wizner at annual media festival Talk Journalism in Jaipur on 11 August 2018, organised by the Vox Media Foundation. Wizner told this reporter that he constantly struggled against his own instincts to protect Snowden from further harm, as the NSA contractor-turned-whistle-blower has been living in an undisclosed location in Moscow, Russia, under asylum.

My instincts have been to protect Snowden from further harm. But as Snowden makes clear, that if he wanted us to protect himself, he would’ve never become a whistle-blower in the first place.
Ben Wizner, Lead Attorney to Edward Snowden

What’s been Wizner’s biggest challenge in dealing with Snowden?

I am a human rights lawyer based in the US, and I have mostly worked in the US context. All of a sudden, I was representing somebody (Snowden) who was trapped in an airport in Moscow... and applying for asylum in 24 countries around the world.
Ben Wizner, Lead Attorney to Edward Snowden

Wizner goes on to say, “So it meant, having to build a team that included criminal lawyers in the US, asylum lawyers in many European countries... just to prepare for whatever contingency might arise.”


On Democracy & Privacy Debate

During our conversation in Jaipur, Wizner says that he often tells Snowden, “You know, for all your engineering skills, democracy isn't a problem that can be solved. There's no technological fix to the challenges that we encounter in free societies. There isn't any formula for fixing democracy. It's always going to be messy.”

As would be inevitable in any conversation surrounding Snowden, Ben Wizner and I launch into a discussion on privacy and data protection. The privacy vs surveillance debate is yet to be resolved, and Wizner says to this:

On the one side we have privacy, on the other side we have security. In fact, I think privacy and security go hand-in-hand. But what we really have is surveillance on one side and security on the other.
Ben Wizner, Lead Attorney to Edward Snowden

On Privacy vs Surveillance

So how does one resolve the ‘privacy vs surveillance’ issue when designing smartphones?

When you’re designing something like an iPhone or any kind of smartphone, you have to decide whether you want to design it for security, or whether you want to design it so it can be surveilled.
Ben Wizner, Lead Attorney to Edward Snowden

Wizner adds, “These are competing design models. If you design these systems so that they can be easily surveilled,they will never be secure. So if Apple has to design its products so that the FBI can get in, that means that criminals can get in, hackers can get in, every government in the world would also be able to get in.”


On Data Localisation & India’s Bid for Data Protection

India’s draft data protection bill mandates data localisation, which means that a copy of ‘sensitive personal data’ of citizens must be stored in servers within the country itself.

What does Ben Wizner have to say about data localisation, with regard to the argument that it will facilitate better law enforcement?

After Snowden blew the lid off US government’s surveillance methods, countries like China began insisting on data localisation for better law enforcement. What’s your take on data localisation?

You know the truth is, if you look at the last 20 years, rather than the last 2 months, law enforcement hasn’t gone dark, it’s gone bright. Essentially now, for the first time in human history, almost all of our activities and communications can be tracked and stored, and law enforcement has access to almost all of that. Encryption for example, doesn’t protect meta data, and meta data says everything about where we are, who we are communicating with, and our network of friends. So the fact that there are some small portions of communication that, because of encryption, law enforcement can’t intercept and read, HAS to be seen in the context of HOW much information they have because of the digital revolution.

As far as India is concerned, Wizner feels, “The more the Internet becomes localised, or as some people say 'balkanised', the easier it will be for countries to use censorship. The worse it will be for free speech and free association. It will really threaten what the Internet has the promise of being, which is, a way for everyone in the world to communicate with each other freely, without the local interference of their governments.”


On WhatsApp Censorship

Moving on to the big debate on WhatsApp and rumours being spread via the app, often leading to lynchings in India, here’s what Ben Wizner had to say:

The first thing that I want to say is that I’m very, very nervous about a for-profit corporation that’s answerable to its shareholders and to its own profit motives and NOT to the public at large, and it being the gatekeeper to decide what speech is true, what speech is false, what is hateful and what is not – this isn’t a role I feel very comfortable with multi-billion dollar companies playing.

So what makes you uncomfortable about WhatsApp’s role in this sort of potential censorship?

Under our law in the US, Facebook is not bound by the Constitution. It can decide what kind of platform it wants to be for itself and for WhatsApp. It can make the rules for what conduct is allowed, and what conduct is not allowed. But in the 21st Century, social media platforms have replaced the public square as the place for where most political speech takes place. And so I’ve been very cautious about demands for Facebook and WhatsApp to be more effective censors of this kind of conduct, because I think what’s going to happen is that, even with the best of intentions to prevent hate from spreading and violence from occurring, Facebook and WhatsApp are going to end up censoring a lot of speech that is valuable.

Wizner also said, “And I just don’t think I want to be in a world where the decision about what information people see and don’t see is made by multi-billion dollar corporations.”

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