Edward Snowden on How Collecting Metadata Is and Isn’t Like Licking One’s Own Balls


It’s been exactly one year since the Guardian published the first story exposing NSA surveillance on a scale that was, 366 days ago, still unimaginable. The news broke right in the middle of the Personal Democracy Forum last year, an annual technology and politics conference held at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and for a crowd like the one the conference draws–technologists, political activists, journalists–it was more than a little bit of a distraction.

This year, Snowden was a keynote speaker at the conference, patched into the packed NYU auditorium via Google hangout, for conversation with John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A year ago, Snowden reflected on Thursday, “none of us really had a full picture of what the government was doing. What they had sort of entitled themselves to do, without asking the public, without even asking the majority of Congress, instead only a few sort of shadowy committees who make decisions behind closed doors.”

What they had entitled themselves to, we know now, is everything: the wholesale collection and storage of information about our phone calls, our text messages, our social media interactions, our Internet activities. The NSA philosophy basically boils down to a single phrase: “Collect it all.”

What that effectively means, Snowden said, is “before we send a text message, or we carry a cellphone or we make a purchase or, you know, we say good night to someone we love, we have to think about what that’s going to look like in a government data base tomorrow, or a year from now, or five years from now.”

And the question of how it looks can be pretty consequential, as Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, has said: ‘We kill people based on metadata.’

It’s chilling, but there are suggestions that with the exposure and pressure of the last year’s revelations, the government’s outlook may be changing. Snowden said on Thursday, “If we have access to data, we want to collect it because otherwise it’s wasted–why not? But something that President Obama said over the last year when he was caught attempting to spy on Angela Merkel was: ‘Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.'”

To this point, Barlow nodded in agreement. “There’s an old joke: Why do animals lick their genitals? Because they can. We have reached the point where something very similar applies to governments, except for the fact that they are not licking their own…”

Snowden laughed, and added, “They’re licking ours–and they’re taking pictures.”