Snowden: “Mass Surveillance Isn’t About Public Safety. It’s About Power.”

If Bitcoin conference keynotes are like headliners at a music festival, Edward Snowden was Bitcoin 2019’s Jack White. Or Childish Gambino, or the entire Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Paul McCartney — or a combination of all of these.

Snowden’s fireside chat with BTC Inc CEO David Bailey drew a packed house on the second day of the Bitcoin 2019 conference in San Francisco. Not at all shocking, Edward Snowden, for his 2013 whistle-blowing on the U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of American citizens, is nothing short of an icon in the cypherpunk and crypto community. His commitments to privacy and individual liberties — and his martyrdom for defending these tenets against the government’s pervasive reach — speak to the ethos that makes Bitcoin so attractive to most of us.

“You have a lot of fans here,” Bailey said about halfway through the talk.

“Yeah, who knew?” Snowden responded wryly.

Of course, Snowden couldn’t attend the conference in person. He’s still in political exile for “crimes against the state,” as a consequence of leaking information in 2013. Snowden’s whistle-blowing broke the conversational seal on privacy rights in the age of information. He continued this conversation during his keynote, especially as it relates to Bitcoin, its ideals and the future of civil liberties in this age of surveillance.

The Role of Privacy

“What is the role of privacy in society and why do we need it?” Bailey asked at the opening of the discussion.

Snowden responded with a reference to ShapeShift. He argued that the trading platform, which began as an experiment in libertarian ideals for seamless, anonymous trading between cryptos, had buckled under the influence of government officials. Like others before and after it, ShapeShift implemented Know Your Customer (KYC) to counter the exchange’s reputation as a hub for washing coins and laundering money.

“This is the status quo,” Snowden declared, regarding KYC’s virtual gaze. “This is the way that banking works.”

He went on to contrast the freedom to transact with the freedom of information “You can say whatever you want, and the worst that will happen is that you’re going to get deplatformed — kicked off YouTube, Twitter. There’s a level of interference, but it’s coming from private companies, not governments,” he said.

Money, however, is different. It’s not nearly as free as information, because both banks as private companies and the government have final say over your money. Your accounts can be frozen at the drop of a subpoena or at the whim of a banker. 

“To me this is the most interesting thing about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is free money. And I don’t mean that because the price is rising,” Snowden said to applause. “What I mean is that it is the first free money, right? You are able to exchange and interact permissionlessly. When I think about privacy, about liberty, that’s what this is all about: What does ‘liberty’ mean? It’s freedom from permission. In a way we can experiment, we can engage, we can try things. We can even fail! 

“This ability to act without harming someone else, this is the basis of all rights. When you talk about due process, right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — whatever it is, the reason we have these rights is because they are codifying the right to self. Privacy is that thing that says you belong to you rather than to society.”

A packed house takes in Edward Snowden’s conversation with David Bailey at BItcoin 2019 in San Francisco

The Age of Mass Digital Surveillance

In the age of technology, mass digital surveillance is quickly phasing out the freedoms of our every day. But they’re not just being choked out by governments and tech companies, Snowden warned. Users themselves are complicit in relinquishing their individual rights to privacy.

“It used to be that if the government wanted to watch you, they’d have teams of people to do this. Now, all of this happens with devices that we use ourselves. We are creating a permanent record of our private lives. Once we do that, privacy stops being the status quo — liberty stops being the natural state of things — and now it is a point of tension with the current system.”

This point of tension is between the governments, Facebooks and banks of the world that now own slices of the privacy pie — the data and private information that internet users trade in exchange for services. And while Snowden said that governments typically won’t tap into this information “unless the law permits it” because it’s expensive and time consuming to do so, the advancement of AI and machine learning will make basic invasions of privacy more feasible in the future.

This privacy as a right matters, he continued. Not just because governments are surveilling us, but because they chose to do so without public…

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