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Edward Snowden: 'It is not data that is being exploited, it’s people'

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Edward Snowden pictured on the front cover of his book 'Permanent Record'. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Edward Snowden urged tech companies to challenge the practice of widespread data collection by corporations in a speech on Monday, saying not enough progress has been made since he blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) data scrapping in 2013.

Speaking via video link at the opening of the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Snowden said: “Whether we’re talking about Facebook or the NSA, that is the real problem — we have legalised the abuse of the person through the personal. We have entrenched a system that makes the population vulnerable for the benefit of the privileged.

“What do you do when the most powerful institutions in society have become the least accountable to society? I think that’s the question that our exists generation to answer.”

‘People are mad at the right people for the wrong reasons’

US whistleblower Edward Snowden holds a video-conference during the Web Summit in Lisbon on November 4, 2019. Photo: CARLOS COSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Former CIA contractor Snowden leaked huge tranches of data in 2013 that uncovered widespread data collection by the NSA and other global intelligence services. The leaks highlighted the often indiscriminate collection of data on global populations, much of it collected in concert with global tech companies.

Snowden, who has lived in exile since the leaks, said on Monday that tech companies had made “a faustian bargain” to do government a favour, without realising that the “tools that had been intended to protect the public had been in many ways used to attack the public.”

Progress has been made identifying the problem since his revelations but there hasn’t been enough done to address them, Snowden said.

“As much as we see the anger rising, as much as I think we see awareness of problems beginning to develop, people are quite frequently mad at the right people for the wrong reasons,” he said.

He said the fundamental problem of data collection had not been addressed, with data collection by the likes of Facebook (FB) and Amazon (AMZN) legal despite concerns.

He added that the rise of ‘sharing economy’ startups like ride-hailing and rental services had in fact made things worse.

“The public, my generation, particularly generation after me, they no longer own anything,” Snowden said. “They are not allowed to own anything. You use these services and they create a permanent record of everything you’ve done.

“Data isn’t harmless, data isn’t abstract when it’s about people. Almost all the data being collected today is about people. It is not data that is being exploited, it’s people that are people exploited. It’s not data in networks being influences or manipulated, it is you being manipulated.”

GDPR ‘a paper tiger’

Freedom of the Press Foundation President Edward Snowden speaks live from Russia during the annual Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal on November 4, 2019. Photo: Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Snowden said there has been a “concentration of power” among big tech companies since his revelations.

“When we see governments and corporations working in concert, we begin to see the birth of a complex between the two where neither truly acts independently or adversarially, but rather they become the left and the right hand of the same body,” Snowden said.

Europe introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) last year aimed at curbing abuses of customer data. Snowden said it was “a good first effort… but it’s not a solution.”

The legislation misdiagnosed the problems, he said, and should in fact tackle the collection of data, not its protection once collected.

As a result, GDPR is “a paper tiger” that gives “a false sense of insurance,” he said.

The downbeat speech was given to a capacity crowd at the 20,000 Altice Arena in Lisbon, made up largely of tech professions. Asked what could be done to address the problems he diagnosed, Snowden called for more encryption and a fundamental re-thinking of data collection practices.

“Rather than asking people to trust you… show them why they don’t have to trust you,” Snowden said. “The only way to protect anyone is to protect everyone.”

He added that technology is “largely value neutral” and it was only the abuse of technology that created problems, not the existence of technology itself.