MOSCOW – Edward Snowden, who exposed the existence of highly invasive U.S. surveillance programs in 2013, warned this week that Japan might be moving closer to achieving sweeping surveillance of ordinary citizens with a bill that gives the police highly invasive surveillance powers in the name of counterterrorism.
“This is the beginning of a new wave of mass surveillance in Japan,” the 33-year-old American said in an exclusive interview from his exile in Russia, referring to Japan’s conspiracy bill, which has stirred controversy at home and abroad as having the potential to undermine civil liberties.
The consequences could be even graver when combined with XKEYSCORE, a wide-reaching U.S. data collection tool that was exposed by the former National Security Agency contractor. Snowden also gave credence to the authenticity of new NSA papers exposed by The Intercept website earlier this year that showed the secretive spy agency has already shared the surveillance tool with Japan.
The warning from the intelligence expert is his latest regarding the Japanese government’s effort to push the divisive conspiracy bill through the Diet. It criminalizes the planning of and the preparatory actions for 277 serious crimes.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in mid-May, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy stated that the conspiracy bill could lead to undue restrictions on privacy and freedom of expression because of its potential for widespread use and abuse — a claim Abe’s government strongly denies.
Snowden said he agrees with the U.N.-appointed expert, Joseph Cannataci, because the bill is “not well explained” and raises concerns that the government may have intentions other than its stated goal of cracking down on terrorism and organized crime ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The conspiracy law, proposed by the government, “focuses on terrorism and everything else that is not related to terrorism — things like taking plants from the forestry reserve,” he said. “And the only real understandable answer (to the government’s desire to pass the legislation) . . . is that this is a bill that authorizes the use of surveillance in new ways because now everyone can be a criminal.”
Based on his experience of using XKEYSCORE, Snowden said the authorities will eventually be able to intercept everyone’s communications, including people who are organizing political movements or protests, and put them “in a bucket.”
The records would be simply “pulled out of the bucket” whenever necessary and the public would not be able to know whether the activities are being undertaken legally or secretly by the government because there are no sufficient legal safeguards in the bill, Snowden said.
Snowden finds the current situation in Japan reminiscent of what he went through in the United States after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
In passing the Patriot Act, which strengthened the U.S. government’s investigative powers in the wake of the attacks, the U.S. government said similar things to what the Japanese government is saying now, such as “these powers are not going to be targeted against ordinary citizens” and “we’re only interested in finding al-Qaida and terrorists,” according to Snowden.
But within a few short years of the Patriot Act being enacted, the U.S. government was using the law secretly to “collect the phone records of everyone in the United States, and everyone around the world who they could access” through the largest phone companies in the United States, Snowden said, referring to the revelations made in 2013 from the top secret NSA documents he leaked.
Even though it sacrifices civil liberties, mass surveillance is ineffective, Snowden said. The U.S. government’s privacy watchdog concluded in its 2014 report that the NSA’s massive telephone records program showed “minimal value” in safeguarding America from terrorism and that it must be terminated.
Snowden said Japan should insert strong guarantees into the conspiracy bill to protect human rights and privacy and ensure those guarantees are “not enforced through the words of politicians but through the actions of courts.”
“This means in advance of surveillance, in all cases the government should seek an individualized warrant, and individualized authorization that this surveillance is lawful and appropriate in relationship to the threat that’s presented by the police,” he said.
He also said allowing a government to get into the habit of collecting the communications of everyone through powerful surveillance tools could dangerously change the relationship between the public and the government to something resembling “subject and ruler” rather than a partnership, which is how it should be in a democracy.
Arguably, the Japanese public may not make much of what Snowden views as the rise of untargeted and indiscriminate mass surveillance, thinking everyday people have nothing to hide or to fear.
But he insists that privacy is not about something to “hide” but about “protecting” an open and free society where people can be different and have their own ideas.
Freedom of speech would not mean much if people didn’t have the space to figure out what they want to say, or the room to share their views with others they trust so they can develop them before introducing them into the context of the world, he said.
“When you say ‘I don’t care about privacy, because I’ve nothing to hide,’ that’s no different than saying you don’t care about freedom of speech, because you’ve nothing to say,” he added.
Snowden said toward the end of the more than 100-minute interview at a hotel in Moscow that living in exile is not “a lifestyle that anyone chooses voluntarily.” He hopes to return home while continuing to have active exchanges online with people in various countries.
“The beautiful thing about today is that I can be in every corner of the world every night. I speak at U.S. universities every month. It’s important to understand that I don’t really live in Moscow. I live on the internet,” he said.
Snowden showed no regrets about taking the risk of becoming a whistle-blower and being painted by his home country as a “criminal” or “traitor,” facing espionage charges at home for his historic document leak.
“It’s scary as hell, but it’s worth it. Because if we don’t do it, if we see the truth of crimes or corruption in government, and we don’t say something about it, we’re not just making the world worse for our children, we’re making the world worse for us, and we’re making ourselves worse,” he said.