The coronavirus is used to build ‘the architecture of oppression’: Edward Snowden

by Shane Smith, Vice, 20 April 2020. Shane chats with former NSA spy and whistleblower Edward Snowden on the rise of authoritarianism during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A short summary of the video by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik.
Now, one of the biggest questions is, all of these emergency measures, all of the data collection
to sort of say, “Well, what’s happening with the pandemic?” have knock-on effects.
And I think one of the greatest thinkers around civil liberties and these unforeseen
Consequences is Edward Snowden.
So today we’re going to talk to him about his thoughts on the COVID virus as well as, what does that mean for our civil liberties? 

We’re acting like COVID-19 is a never-seen-before virus and that this is just out of nowhere,
surprise, surprise. You know, we had SARS, we had MERS. We’ve had these types
of things before, and in fact, we knew that we were going to be having more of them,
yet we were not set up, or it seems like we were completely taken aback that this is happening now and is having, you know, such a profound effect, when, if you talk to any
epidemiologist or virologist, they knew that this was going to happen.
There is nothing more foreseeable as a public health crisis for, you know, again, a world where we are just living on top of each other in crowded and polluted cities than a pandemic.
And yeah, every academic, every researcher who’s looked at this knew this was coming.
And in fact, even intelligence agencies, I can tell you first-hand because I used to read the reports,
had been planning for pandemics.
And yet when we needed it, the system has now failed us, and it has failed us comprehensively.
And the thing that I find grotesque about this situation is that now the people who are being asked
to sacrifice the most are the people who are in the most precarious positions, who have the least to give.
We’re constantly being told we’re the richest country in the world.
But when people start losing their jobs, when rents become difficult to pay because there’s no work for any waitress in any restaurant in New York right now, where are our resources?
When our hospitals say they need ventilators, you know, where is all this great technology
that’s being used to survey everybody, you know, down to the tiniest toenail when we need it to create things that actually save lives?
In South Korea, which has been successful in at least flattening their curve, the government’s been
sending text messages to people who have come into contact with people that they know have COVID-19, which means they know who has COVID-19, they know who they’re meeting, they know their text message numbers.
They know how to get in touch with them.
Taiwan is doing a “mobile fence,” so-called, where, if they know you’re infected, they’re going to put
a mobile fence around you, and if you leave, you’re going to get in trouble.
Your mobile phone is your new ankle bracelet.
So are autocratic regimes better at dealing with things like this than democratic ones?
I don’t think so. I mean, there are arguments being made that China can do things that the United States can’t.
Now, that doesn’t mean that what these autocratic countries are doing is actually more effective.
There are really only two things that we know to be true.
One is that no one knows the true number of infected because we can only in the absolute best case
know the confirmed cases of people that we’ve actually tested.
And once you start to layer in this autocratic, or I would argue, more authoritarian type
of policy structure, what you end up seeing is that instead of policy being guided by science and facts,
you begin to see things like information releases becoming political decisions.
Now, this is not new. In fact, the Spanish flu around 1918 did not actually originate in Spain.
It was actually spreading in World War I through the trenches, where everybody was in terrible conditions.
But the militaries of the day had imposed restrictions on what the press could report that could impact the war effort.
And so Spain, being a neutral country, was publishing what they were actually seeing in their country.
Now we’re a little further ahead than that today.
But that doesn’t erase the fact that people in power who see that there is a political advantage
to disguising or concealing or massaging or denying numbers may choose to lie about it.
It’s happened before and it’s almost certainly happening now.
Particularly, we see the Chinese government recently working to expel Western journalists at precisely this moment where we need credible independent reporting from this kind of region.
And the fact that we cannot get independent verification of the facts gives us reason
to doubt the official story.
And the reality that we need to accept, which is an uncomfortable reality, is that even in places
that are not autocratic regimes, they’re going to have a second wave.
They’re going to have a third wave.
They’re going to have a fourth wave based on all of the best medical analysis that we have available today.
And so all of these measures are going to get more severe.
And what then happens to civil liberties, to privacy rights, to democracy?
I mean, what are the knock-on effects that you can see?
I mean, this is really the central question of this moment in history.
What we see is everyone is fearful and hopeless and so worried about today that we have
really stopped thinking about what tomorrow will look like as a result of the decisions
that we take today.
They collect data and they are saying they’re using it for contact tracing.
However, this method of contact tracing does not really work on a pandemic scale.
What is being built is the architecture of oppression.
How are they getting that data? That’s a good question.
There are a number of ways that you can track the location of someone through their phone.
There are these cell phone towers themselves, but there’s also the wireless network
that you’re connected to.
Many companies have our phone data. Of course, the companies tell us that they will depersonalize
this information, that they will ‘anonymize’ it.
The problem is, if you’re not tracking one infection or 100 infections, but you’re tracking
100,000 infections, contact-tracing quickly becomes useless.
The question is where all that information goes and how it is controlled. I should have
some influence over it. I should have control over it.
But unfortunately, in the United States, to a large degree, you don’t.
There is no basic privacy law in the United States.
We need to be able to make sure that the brakes that are being pumped are on the pandemic
rather than on our society.
This is the big question of our times around civil liberties, around the right to privacy.
You know, we’re declaring various states of emergencies here and there.
But these have sweeping powers. So we’re sitting here in America quarantined and saying,
“Okay, what does this mean going forward?”
When I think about the future, when any of us look at where this is heading, we need to think about
where we’ve been, and sadly, these kind of emergency powers have a perfect history
of abuse.
The funniest part about it in a dark way is that the emergency never ends. It becomes normalized.
Let us think about the legacy of 9/11 and the Patriot Act.
And we are still today engaged in the same wars that we declared nearly 20 years ago
that we have not managed to escape.
We saw authoritarianism begin to creep across Western societies, places we wouldn’t expect,
like Hungary and Poland.
As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights,
we also sacrifice our capability to arrest this slide into a less liberal and less free world.
Do you truly believe that when the first wave, the second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept, that these data sets will not be kept?
No matter how it is being used, what is being built is the architecture of oppression.
You might go, “You know, I don’t care about Mark Zuckerberg.”
But someone else will have this data eventually.
Some other country will have this data eventually.
And someone will abuse it.

-This is a pivotal moment.
-It is.
-And why is nobody talking about this?
-Because we’re scared.

If we work together, if we think that how we can protect ourselves, our families, our communities, our hospitals, if we think about how we can work together internationally to overcome this,
as our weeds peak in different places at different times, we cooperate, we can start to get this space
to think not about addressing the symptom of our overcrowded and unequal world, which is this virus that has spread across borders instantly.
When you look at what’s happened, when we have this health crisis, and it very quickly morphed
into an economic crisis and then very quickly became a financial crisis, you see all the governments
of the world leap into action. And it’s interesting that you see the majority of this money go not to the public, not to hospitals, but to businesses, loans to the groups and corporations that actually created the systemic problems.
But we need to remember that this virus will pass, but the decisions that we make today in this atmosphere will last.
And if we don’t make that decision ourselves, it will be made for us.