Snowden and the debate on surveillance versus privacy

Whistleblower Edward Snowden acknowledged journalism as an essential way to make governments accountable and transparent about surveillance. “Journalism is one of the most effective levers we have and I would argue it’s one of the only levers we still have,” he said in a Skype interview.

Laura Poitras, the author of an Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour; Ben Wizner, an American lawyer expert at civil liberties; and Fabio Chiusi, an Italian journalist, were the strongest voices of a panel discussion at the 2015 International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

The chair of the discussion Fabio Chiusi pointed out that Italian prime ministers Enrico Letta and Matteo Renzi have never responded to the reveals about the scale of spying by foreign intelligence services. Mr Snowden admitted that before 2013 they might not have been aware of all the details.

“Now, in the wake of the large scandal, I would assume they know quite a bit about what has happened and they should be more responsive to questions, because when there are not, it raises a serious concern for the civil society about what we’re not being told,” Mr Snowden replied.

He also said that it is widely recognised that Italian and American spy agencies work closely together. For instance, he himself worked in Milan during his engagement with the CIA.

Mr Wizner also briefly commented on the fact that mass surveillance has been introduced as a topic in the American presidential campaign. “There have been a few very remarkable developments,” he said. “We saw a Republican candidate for president in his speech (…) devote two paragraphs to criticising NSA mass surveillance and saying that the people who were bosses at the NSA should be punished for shredding the constitution and breaking the law.”

“But I don’t see any likelihood that this problem will be solved by the politicians,” he added. Mr Snowden expressed a similar idea, saying that “any government (…) is never going to reform itself”.

Ms Poitras described the mass surveillance as a business model where the governments involve telecoms and internet service providers. “They’re definitely using that relationship to collect our data,” she said.

In addition, she mentioned that the public discussion after Mr Snowden’s reveals has made some companies less cooperative. “Particularly the internet companies stepped away from it in the light of some of the reporting,” she said.

Ms Poitras also confirmed that she will soon release outtakes from her award-winning film CitizenFour. She said that her clips make up a sound archive: “It’s a pretty incredible historical document.”

During a wider discussion about the privacy, Mr. Wizner suggested that it is wrongly presented in terms of the difference between the secrecy and disclosure.  “I think we’ve learnt (…) that privacy is about other things. It’s about power, context, control, autonomy. It’s about democracy, liberty and free societies,” he said.

Helena Kardova