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TEDGlobal 2014

Glenn Greenwald: Why privacy matters

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Glenn Greenwald was one of the first reporters to see -- and write about -- the Edward Snowden files, with their revelations about the United States' extensive surveillance of private citizens. In this searing talk, Greenwald makes the case for why you need to care about privacy, even if you're "not doing anything you need to hide."

- Journalist
Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who has done the most to expose and explain the Edward Snowden files. Full bio

There is an entire genre of YouTube videos
00:12
devoted to an experience which
00:15
I am certain that everyone in this room has had.
00:17
It entails an individual who,
00:20
thinking they're alone,
00:22
engages in some expressive behavior —
00:23
wild singing, gyrating dancing,
00:27
some mild sexual activity —
00:29
only to discover that, in fact, they are not alone,
00:32
that there is a person watching and lurking,
00:34
the discovery of which causes them
00:37
to immediately cease what they were doing
00:39
in horror.
00:41
The sense of shame and humiliation
00:43
in their face is palpable.
00:45
It's the sense of,
00:47
"This is something I'm willing to do
00:49
only if no one else is watching."
00:51
This is the crux of the work
00:54
on which I have been singularly focused
00:57
for the last 16 months,
00:59
the question of why privacy matters,
01:01
a question that has arisen
01:03
in the context of a global debate,
01:05
enabled by the revelations of Edward Snowden
01:08
that the United States and its partners,
01:10
unbeknownst to the entire world,
01:13
has converted the Internet,
01:15
once heralded as an unprecedented tool
01:17
of liberation and democratization,
01:20
into an unprecedented zone
01:23
of mass, indiscriminate surveillance.
01:25
There is a very common sentiment
01:29
that arises in this debate,
01:31
even among people who are uncomfortable
01:32
with mass surveillance, which says
01:34
that there is no real harm
01:36
that comes from this large-scale invasion
01:38
because only people who are engaged in bad acts
01:41
have a reason to want to hide
01:44
and to care about their privacy.
01:46
This worldview is implicitly grounded
01:49
in the proposition that there are
two kinds of people in the world,
01:52
good people and bad people.
01:54
Bad people are those who plot terrorist attacks
01:56
or who engage in violent criminality
01:59
and therefore have reasons to
want to hide what they're doing,
02:00
have reasons to care about their privacy.
02:04
But by contrast, good people
02:06
are people who go to work,
02:08
come home, raise their children, watch television.
02:10
They use the Internet not to plot bombing attacks
02:13
but to read the news or exchange recipes
02:16
or to plan their kids' Little League games,
02:18
and those people are doing nothing wrong
02:21
and therefore have nothing to hide
02:23
and no reason to fear
02:25
the government monitoring them.
02:27
The people who are actually saying that
02:30
are engaged in a very extreme act
02:32
of self-deprecation.
02:34
What they're really saying is,
02:36
"I have agreed to make myself
02:38
such a harmless and unthreatening
02:40
and uninteresting person that I actually don't fear
02:43
having the government know what it is that I'm doing."
02:46
This mindset has found what I think
02:49
is its purest expression
02:51
in a 2009 interview with
02:53
the longtime CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, who,
02:55
when asked about all the different ways his company
02:58
is causing invasions of privacy
03:01
for hundreds of millions of people around the world,
03:03
said this: He said,
03:06
"If you're doing something that you don't want
03:08
other people to know,
03:09
maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
03:11
Now, there's all kinds of things to say about
03:15
that mentality,
03:17
the first of which is that the people who say that,
03:20
who say that privacy isn't really important,
03:23
they don't actually believe it,
03:25
and the way you know that
they don't actually believe it
03:28
is that while they say with their
words that privacy doesn't matter,
03:30
with their actions, they take all kinds of steps
03:33
to safeguard their privacy.
03:36
They put passwords on their email
03:39
and their social media accounts,
03:40
they put locks on their bedroom
03:42
and bathroom doors,
03:44
all steps designed to prevent other people
03:45
from entering what they consider their private realm
03:48
and knowing what it is that they
don't want other people to know.
03:51
The very same Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google,
03:55
ordered his employees at Google
03:58
to cease speaking with the online
04:00
Internet magazine CNET
04:02
after CNET published an article
04:05
full of personal, private information
04:07
about Eric Schmidt,
04:09
which it obtained exclusively
through Google searches
04:11
and using other Google products. (Laughter)
04:14
This same division can be seen
04:18
with the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg,
04:20
who in an infamous interview in 2010
04:22
pronounced that privacy is no longer
04:26
a "social norm."
04:28
Last year, Mark Zuckerberg and his new wife
04:31
purchased not only their own house
04:34
but also all four adjacent houses in Palo Alto
04:36
for a total of 30 million dollars
04:40
in order to ensure that they enjoyed a zone of privacy
04:41
that prevented other people from monitoring
04:45
what they do in their personal lives.
04:47
Over the last 16 months, as I've
debated this issue around the world,
04:51
every single time somebody has said to me,
04:53
"I don't really worry about invasions of privacy
04:56
because I don't have anything to hide."
04:57
I always say the same thing to them.
04:59
I get out a pen, I write down my email address.
05:01
I say, "Here's my email address.
05:03
What I want you to do when you get home
05:05
is email me the passwords
05:06
to all of your email accounts,
05:08
not just the nice, respectable work one in your name,
05:10
but all of them,
05:12
because I want to be able to just troll through
05:14
what it is you're doing online,
05:16
read what I want to read and
publish whatever I find interesting.
05:18
After all, if you're not a bad person,
05:20
if you're doing nothing wrong,
05:22
you should have nothing to hide."
05:24
Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.
05:27
I check and — (Applause)
05:30
I check that email account religiously all the time.
05:34
It's a very desolate place.
05:38
And there's a reason for that,
05:41
which is that we as human beings,
05:43
even those of us who in words
05:45
disclaim the importance of our own privacy,
05:47
instinctively understand
05:49
the profound importance of it.
05:51
It is true that as human beings, we're social animals,
05:53
which means we have a need for other people
05:56
to know what we're doing and saying and thinking,
05:58
which is why we voluntarily publish
information about ourselves online.
06:01
But equally essential to what it means
06:05
to be a free and fulfilled human being
06:08
is to have a place that we can go
06:11
and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people.
06:13
There's a reason why we seek that out,
06:17
and our reason is that all of us —
06:19
not just terrorists and criminals, all of us —
06:22
have things to hide.
06:25
There are all sorts of things that we do and think
06:27
that we're willing to tell our physician
06:30
or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse
06:33
or our best friend that we would be mortified
06:36
for the rest of the world to learn.
06:39
We make judgments every single day
06:41
about the kinds of things that we say and think and do
06:43
that we're willing to have other people know,
06:45
and the kinds of things that we say and think and do
06:47
that we don't want anyone else to know about.
06:49
People can very easily in words claim
06:51
that they don't value their privacy,
06:55
but their actions negate the authenticity of that belief.
06:57
Now, there's a reason why privacy is so craved
07:02
universally and instinctively.
07:06
It isn't just a reflexive movement
07:07
like breathing air or drinking water.
07:09
The reason is that when we're in a state
07:12
where we can be monitored,
where we can be watched,
07:14
our behavior changes dramatically.
07:17
The range of behavioral options that we consider
07:20
when we think we're being watched
07:23
severely reduce.
07:25
This is just a fact of human nature
07:27
that has been recognized in social science
07:29
and in literature and in religion
07:31
and in virtually every field of discipline.
07:33
There are dozens of psychological studies
07:35
that prove that when somebody knows
07:38
that they might be watched,
07:41
the behavior they engage in
07:42
is vastly more conformist and compliant.
07:44
Human shame is a very powerful motivator,
07:47
as is the desire to avoid it,
07:51
and that's the reason why people,
07:54
when they're in a state of
being watched, make decisions
07:55
not that are the byproduct of their own agency
07:57
but that are about the expectations
08:01
that others have of them
08:03
or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.
08:04
This realization was exploited most powerfully
08:09
for pragmatic ends by the 18th-
century philosopher Jeremy Bentham,
08:11
who set out to resolve an important problem
08:16
ushered in by the industrial age,
08:18
where, for the first time, institutions had become
08:20
so large and centralized
08:22
that they were no longer able to monitor
08:24
and therefore control each one
of their individual members,
08:26
and the solution that he devised
08:29
was an architectural design
08:31
originally intended to be implemented in prisons
08:33
that he called the panopticon,
08:36
the primary attribute of which was the construction
08:38
of an enormous tower in the center of the institution
08:40
where whoever controlled the institution
08:43
could at any moment watch any of the inmates,
08:46
although they couldn't watch all of them at all times.
08:48
And crucial to this design
08:52
was that the inmates could not actually
08:54
see into the panopticon, into the tower,
08:55
and so they never knew
08:58
if they were being watched or even when.
09:00
And what made him so excited about this discovery
09:02
was that that would mean that the prisoners
09:06
would have to assume that they were being watched
09:08
at any given moment,
09:11
which would be the ultimate enforcer
09:12
for obedience and compliance.
09:14
The 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault
09:18
realized that that model could be used
09:21
not just for prisons but for every institution
09:23
that seeks to control human behavior:
09:26
schools, hospitals, factories, workplaces.
09:28
And what he said was that this mindset,
09:31
this framework discovered by Bentham,
09:33
was the key means of societal control
09:35
for modern, Western societies,
09:39
which no longer need
09:41
the overt weapons of tyranny —
09:42
punishing or imprisoning or killing dissidents,
09:44
or legally compelling loyalty to a particular party —
09:47
because mass surveillance creates
09:50
a prison in the mind
09:52
that is a much more subtle
09:55
though much more effective means
09:57
of fostering compliance with social norms
09:59
or with social orthodoxy,
10:02
much more effective
10:03
than brute force could ever be.
10:05
The most iconic work of literature about surveillance
10:08
and privacy is the George Orwell novel "1984,"
10:11
which we all learn in school, and
therefore it's almost become a cliche.
10:14
In fact, whenever you bring it up
in a debate about surveillance,
10:18
people instantaneously dismiss it
10:20
as inapplicable, and what they say is,
10:22
"Oh, well in '1984,' there were
monitors in people's homes,
10:24
they were being watched at every given moment,
10:28
and that has nothing to do with
the surveillance state that we face."
10:30
That is an actual fundamental misapprehension
10:34
of the warnings that Orwell issued in "1984."
10:37
The warning that he was issuing
10:39
was about a surveillance state
10:41
not that monitored everybody at all times,
10:43
but where people were aware that they could
10:45
be monitored at any given moment.
10:47
Here is how Orwell's narrator, Winston Smith,
10:49
described the surveillance system
10:52
that they faced:
10:54
"There was, of course, no way of knowing
10:55
whether you were being watched
at any given moment."
10:57
He went on to say,
11:00
"At any rate, they could plug in your wire
11:01
whenever they wanted to.
11:03
You had to live, did live,
11:05
from habit that became instinct,
11:07
in the assumption that every sound you made
11:09
was overheard and except in darkness
11:12
every movement scrutinized."
11:14
The Abrahamic religions similarly posit
11:17
that there's an invisible, all-knowing authority
11:20
who, because of its omniscience,
11:23
always watches whatever you're doing,
11:25
which means you never have a private moment,
11:27
the ultimate enforcer
11:30
for obedience to its dictates.
11:31
What all of these seemingly disparate works
11:34
recognize, the conclusion that they all reach,
11:38
is that a society in which people
11:40
can be monitored at all times
11:43
is a society that breeds conformity
11:45
and obedience and submission,
11:48
which is why every tyrant,
11:50
the most overt to the most subtle,
11:52
craves that system.
11:54
Conversely, even more importantly,
11:56
it is a realm of privacy,
11:59
the ability to go somewhere where we can think
12:01
and reason and interact and speak
12:04
without the judgmental eyes
of others being cast upon us,
12:07
in which creativity and exploration
12:11
and dissent exclusively reside,
12:14
and that is the reason why,
12:17
when we allow a society to exist
12:19
in which we're subject to constant monitoring,
12:22
we allow the essence of human freedom
12:24
to be severely crippled.
12:27
The last point I want to observe about this mindset,
12:30
the idea that only people who
are doing something wrong
12:33
have things to hide and therefore
reasons to care about privacy,
12:35
is that it entrenches two very destructive messages,
12:39
two destructive lessons,
12:43
the first of which is that
12:45
the only people who care about privacy,
12:47
the only people who will seek out privacy,
12:49
are by definition bad people.
12:51
This is a conclusion that we should have
12:55
all kinds of reasons for avoiding,
12:57
the most important of which is that when you say,
12:59
"somebody who is doing bad things,"
13:02
you probably mean things
like plotting a terrorist attack
13:05
or engaging in violent criminality,
13:07
a much narrower conception
13:09
of what people who wield power mean
13:12
when they say, "doing bad things."
13:14
For them, "doing bad things" typically means
13:17
doing something that poses meaningful challenges
13:19
to the exercise of our own power.
13:22
The other really destructive
13:25
and, I think, even more insidious lesson
13:27
that comes from accepting this mindset
13:29
is there's an implicit bargain
13:32
that people who accept this mindset have accepted,
13:34
and that bargain is this:
13:38
If you're willing to render yourself
13:39
sufficiently harmless,
13:41
sufficiently unthreatening
13:43
to those who wield political power,
13:45
then and only then can you be free
13:47
of the dangers of surveillance.
13:50
It's only those who are dissidents,
13:52
who challenge power,
13:55
who have something to worry about.
13:56
There are all kinds of reasons why we
should want to avoid that lesson as well.
13:58
You may be a person who, right now,
14:02
doesn't want to engage in that behavior,
14:04
but at some point in the future you might.
14:06
Even if you're somebody who decides
14:08
that you never want to,
14:10
the fact that there are other people
14:12
who are willing to and able to resist
14:13
and be adversarial to those in power —
14:16
dissidents and journalists
14:18
and activists and a whole range of others —
14:19
is something that brings us all collective good
14:21
that we should want to preserve.
14:24
Equally critical is that the measure
14:27
of how free a society is
14:29
is not how it treats its good,
14:31
obedient, compliant citizens,
14:33
but how it treats its dissidents
14:36
and those who resist orthodoxy.
14:38
But the most important reason
14:41
is that a system of mass surveillance
14:42
suppresses our own freedom in all sorts of ways.
14:45
It renders off-limits
14:47
all kinds of behavioral choices
14:49
without our even knowing that it's happened.
14:51
The renowned socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg
14:55
once said, "He who does not move
14:57
does not notice his chains."
15:00
We can try and render the chains
15:03
of mass surveillance invisible or undetectable,
15:05
but the constraints that it imposes on us
15:08
do not become any less potent.
15:10
Thank you very much.
15:13
(Applause)
15:15
Thank you.
15:16
(Applause)
15:17
Thank you.
15:22
(Applause)
15:25
Bruno Giussani: Glenn, thank you.
15:31
The case is rather convincing, I have to say,
15:33
but I want to bring you back
15:35
to the last 16 months and to Edward Snowden
15:37
for a few questions, if you don't mind.
15:40
The first one is personal to you.
15:42
We have all read about the arrest of your partner,
15:45
David Miranda in London, and other difficulties,
15:48
but I assume that
15:51
in terms of personal engagement and risk,
15:53
that the pressure on you is not that easy
15:57
to take on the biggest sovereign
organizations in the world.
15:58
Tell us a little bit about that.
16:01
Glenn Greenwald: You know, I think
one of the things that happens
16:04
is that people's courage in this regard
16:06
gets contagious,
16:07
and so although I and the other
journalists with whom I was working
16:09
were certainly aware of the risk —
16:13
the United States continues to be
the most powerful country in the world
16:14
and doesn't appreciate it when you
16:17
disclose thousands of their secrets
16:19
on the Internet at will —
16:21
seeing somebody who is a 29-year-old
16:23
ordinary person who grew up in
16:27
a very ordinary environment
16:29
exercise the degree of principled
courage that Edward Snowden risked,
16:31
knowing that he was going to go
to prison for the rest of his life
16:35
or that his life would unravel,
16:37
inspired me and inspired other journalists
16:39
and inspired, I think, people around the world,
16:41
including future whistleblowers,
16:43
to realize that they can engage
in that kind of behavior as well.
16:44
BG: I'm curious about your
relationship with Ed Snowden,
16:48
because you have spoken with him a lot,
16:50
and you certainly continue doing so,
16:53
but in your book, you never call him Edward,
16:55
nor Ed, you say "Snowden." How come?
16:58
GG: You know, I'm sure that's something
17:01
for a team of psychologists to examine.
(Laughter)
17:03
I don't really know. The reason I think that,
17:06
one of the important objectives that he actually had,
17:10
one of his, I think, most important tactics,
17:13
was that he knew that one of the ways
17:16
to distract attention from the
substance of the revelations
17:18
would be to try and personalize the focus on him,
17:21
and for that reason, he stayed out of the media.
17:23
He tried not to ever have his personal life
17:25
subject to examination,
17:28
and so I think calling him Snowden
17:30
is a way of just identifying him
as this important historical actor
17:32
rather than trying to personalize him in a way
17:36
that might distract attention from the substance.
17:38
Moderator: So his revelations, your analysis,
17:41
the work of other journalists,
17:42
have really developed the debate,
17:44
and many governments, for example, have reacted,
17:47
including in Brazil, with projects and programs
17:49
to reshape a little bit the design of the Internet, etc.
17:52
There are a lot of things going on in that sense.
17:54
But I'm wondering, for you personally,
17:57
what is the endgame?
17:59
At what point will you think,
18:01
well, actually, we've succeeded
in moving the dial?
18:03
GG: Well, I mean, the endgame for me as a journalist
18:06
is very simple, which is to make sure
18:08
that every single document that's newsworthy
18:11
and that ought to be disclosed
18:13
ends up being disclosed,
18:14
and that secrets that should never
have been kept in the first place
18:16
end up uncovered.
18:18
To me, that's the essence of journalism
18:19
and that's what I'm committed to doing.
18:21
As somebody who finds mass surveillance odious
18:23
for all the reasons I just talked about and a lot more,
18:25
I mean, I look at this as work that will never end
18:27
until governments around the world
18:30
are no longer able to subject entire populations
18:32
to monitoring and surveillance
18:35
unless they convince some court or some entity
18:36
that the person they've targeted
18:39
has actually done something wrong.
18:40
To me, that's the way that
privacy can be rejuvenated.
18:43
BG: So Snowden is very,
as we've seen at TED,
18:46
is very articulate in presenting and portraying himself
18:49
as a defender of democratic values
18:51
and democratic principles.
18:54
But then, many people really
find it difficult to believe
18:55
that those are his only motivations.
18:58
They find it difficult to believe
19:01
that there was no money involved,
19:02
that he didn't sell some of those secrets,
19:04
even to China and to Russia,
19:06
which are clearly not the best friends
19:08
of the United States right now.
19:10
And I'm sure many people in the room
19:12
are wondering the same question.
19:14
Do you consider it possible there is
19:16
that part of Snowden we've not seen yet?
19:18
GG: No, I consider that absurd and idiotic.
19:21
(Laughter) If you wanted to,
19:24
and I know you're just playing devil's advocate,
19:26
but if you wanted to sell
19:29
secrets to another country,
19:32
which he could have done and become
19:34
extremely rich doing so,
19:36
the last thing you would
do is take those secrets
19:37
and give them to journalists and
ask journalists to publish them,
19:39
because it makes those secrets worthless.
19:42
People who want to enrich themselves
19:44
do it secretly by selling
secrets to the government,
19:46
but I think there's one important point worth making,
19:48
which is, that accusation comes from
19:50
people in the U.S. government,
19:52
from people in the media who are loyalists
19:54
to these various governments,
19:56
and I think a lot of times when people make accusations like that about other people —
19:57
"Oh, he can't really be doing this
20:00
for principled reasons,
20:02
he must have some corrupt, nefarious reason" —
20:04
they're saying a lot more about themselves
20:06
than they are the target of their accusations,
20:08
because — (Applause) —
20:10
those people, the ones who make that accusation,
20:14
they themselves never act
20:17
for any reason other than corrupt reasons,
20:19
so they assume
20:21
that everybody else is plagued by the same disease
20:22
of soullessness as they are,
20:25
and so that's the assumption.
20:27
(Applause)
20:29
BG: Glenn, thank you very much.
GG: Thank you very much.
20:30
BG: Glenn Greenwald.
20:33
(Applause)
20:35

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About the speaker:

Glenn Greenwald - Journalist
Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who has done the most to expose and explain the Edward Snowden files.

Why you should listen

As one of the first journalists privy to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s archives, Glenn Greenwald has a unique window into the inner workings of the NSA and Britain's GCHQ. A vocal advocate for civil liberties in the face of growing post-9/11 authoritarianism, Greenwald was a natural outlet for Snowden, who’d admired his combative writing style in Salon and elsewhere.

Since his original Guardian exposés of Snowden’s revelations, Pulitzer winner Greenwald continues to stoke public debate on surveillance and privacy both in the media, on The Intercept, and with his new book No Place to Hide -- and suggests that the there are more shocking revelations to come.

More profile about the speaker
Glenn Greenwald | Speaker | TED.com