The Snowden era: Tom Engelhardt interviews Laura Poitras

As voters begin casting their ballots in Colorado, many have lamented the issue-free campaigns that have dominated this year’s midterm election season.

One of the issues really only hinted at by candidates for federal office over the last twelve months is what to do about the vast, outrageously expensive, unconstitutional surveillance state put in place after the attacks of September 11. No one has mentioned even this rudimentary fact about it: There are 5.1 million Americans working for the government who have been granted a security clearance. More Americans are now being trusted with supposed national security secrets than the entire population of Ireland. What do you suppose those 5.1 million people do every day? Is whatever they’re doing — that activity, that volume of activity even — the product of a government policy you or anyone else you know ever imagined supporting or voting for at any point over the last decade?

For the kind of conversation on this important topic you wish the candidates could have delivered, read national security author Tom Engelhardt’s interview with national security investigative reporter Laura Poitras, who broke the Snowden leaks with Glenn Greenwald and whose new documentary, Citizenfour, on the Snowden story is being screened around the country.

An excerpt of the interview, courtesy Tom Dispatch.

[blockquote]Laura Poitras: I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing. Congress is learning from the reporting and that’s staggering. Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who’s also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers. We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used. One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they’ve been. Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you’re reporting, who you’re talking to, and where you’ve been. So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I’m talking to.

Tom Engelhardt: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden? After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.

I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future. We’re at a crossroads and we still don’t quite know which path we’re going to take. Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance. We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now. People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we’re talking to, and all kinds of other information. So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.

There’s clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.

Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy, and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track. The technology track is encryption. It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it. We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies. At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.[/blockquote]