Journalist Glenn Greenwald calls for end of mass surveillance in talk

Activist journalist responsible for breaking stories on Edward Snowden and NSA leaks discusses privacy

Kylee Sapp

The importance of privacy is ever increasing in the age of new technology, Glenn Greenwald said to students at Washington and Lee University on Oct. 20.

“Embedded in our essence is the need to have a place we can actually go without the judgmental eyes of other people being cast upon us,” he said.

Students said they found Greenwald’s talk to be very eye-opening.

“It made me reconsider how I view privacy and how a lack of transparency exists in the government,” Audrey Dangler, ‘18, said.

Greenwald is most famous for his work with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency employee who recently released top secret government files.  Greenwald discussed his work with Snowden and the high level of government surveillance that many people, including members of the U.S. Congress, were unaware of.

“It is the institutional goal of the NSA to collect and store and monitor and analyze all forms of communication,” Greenwald said.

In fact, Greenwald said, the NSA collects so much data about American citizens, as well as foreign countries, that its biggest challenge is finding a place to store it all.

The most stunning part of his work with Snowden was, “not this profound invasion and subversion of the right to privacy,” he said, but rather “the profound subversion to democracy that this all presents.”

The Internet was intended to be a tool of “democratization and liberalization,” and has the ability to completely change the way humans view the world, yet the government made a decision entirely in secret to turn it into a “realm of mass surveillance,” Greenwald said.

“What I most enjoyed about Mr. Greenwald’s talk was his various arguments about the importance of cybersecurity and cyber anonymity in relation to democracy,” Robyn Cleary, ‘18, said.

So few people know about the NSA’s project, Greenwald said, that even members of Congress who oversee the intelligence committee were surprised at how little they were aware of.  When Greenwald talked to these officials, he said they had very limited knowledge of the program.

The issue of secrecy is not just prevalent in the United States. The outcome of the United States’ foreign surveillance relationship doesn’t change when power in those countries change because very few people in those countries even know the level of surveillance, Greenwald said.

“Everywhere I went, that same reaction was visible, where the highest public officials would say, ‘I know nothing about this program,’” he said.

Greenwald used this information to talk about the importance of privacy in the lives of Americans.

As of right now, the government can see into the lives of Americans, yet they’re building higher and higher walls of secrecy around everything they do, he said.  Greenwald argued that the system should be reversed.

Some Americans believe they don’t value privacy, he said, but “Almost no one who says they don’t value privacy actually means it.” People protect their accounts with passwords and lock their doors at night.

Greenwald said children are also being taught in school to value privacy less and less, which is a problem because it makes it easier for the government to observe them.

“A society that is watched is a society that is conformist and obedient,” he said.

Government officials like to justify mass surveillance by saying it prevents terrorist attacks, but there has never been a case of this actually working, Greenwald said. In fact, mass surveillance makes it more difficult to stop terrorist attacks, because there is more data for the government to sift through.

“I wholeheartedly agree with his statement that mass surveillance doesn’t work and should be ended, but that target surveillance should continue to be funded and operated,” Cleary said.

Greenwald concluded his talk by saying that it’s usually the ordinary people who change the world.

“His encouragement at the end about everyday, ordinary people standing up for what they believe in struck a chord in me as well,” Dangler said.

“Edward Snowden was the most ordinary person you could possibly imagine…[he] didn’t even graduate high school…he had no power, no position, no prestige,” Greenwald said. “With nothing more than an act of courage, he changed the world.”