We might soon learn more about the controversial U.S. government surveillance scandal that has privacy advocates, news organizations, politicians and others up in arms.
Earlier this month, former technical contractor for the National Security Agency and ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden made public classified information that the U.S. government has had "direct access" to the servers of tech giants including Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Under a program called PRISM, Snowden claims the U.S. government has been collecting data from these companies -- such as user photos, emails and other documents -- to spy on foreign targets, and potentially American citizens as well.
Companies including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have denied knowledge of PRISM and that they granted the government direct access to their servers. The companies have, however, released statements indicating that they have each received thousands of requests for customer information from U.S. intelligence agencies.
In a live Q+A with U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper, Snowden said that a clearer picture of how the NSA has direct access to this type of information "is coming." He also touched on why he sought asylum in Hong Kong and on the tech companies' denials of involvement in the PRISM program.
Below is an unedited excerpt of Snowden's responses:
What 'direct access' means: "More detail on how direct NSA's accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on - it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time."
The denials from companies like Facebook and Google: "Their denials went through several revisions as it become more and more clear they were misleading and included identical, specific language across companies. As a result of these disclosures and the clout of these companies, we're finally beginning to see more transparency and better details about these programs for the first time since their inception.
They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the program, but that does not comply them from ethical obligation. If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community, what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?"
Why he escaped to Hong Kong: "Leaving the US was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored. There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration."
The growing speculation that he has or will provide classified U.S. information to the Chinese in exchange for asylum: "No. I have had no contact with the Chinese government. Just like with the Guardian and the Washington Post, I only work with journalists."
On the best way to protect one's personal data: "Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it."
- National Security Agency