Whistleblower or Traitor?

Exclusive: Former Google CEO says Snowden helped us, but he broke the law.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

The executive chairman of Google, which has been a frequent target of government surveillance agencies in the United States and Britain, said classified information revealed by leaker Edward Snowden has helped the company better protect its customers’ privacy from unwarranted intrusions. But he stopped short of endorsing Snowden’s decision to disclose the inner workings of government spying, arguing that the leaks could have grave consequences for national security and human life.

"The Snowden information was helpful to know," said Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and a current advisor to its co-founders, in an interview with Foreign Policy on Thursday, Feb. 27. In 2013, company officials announced that they would henceforth encrypt traffic flowing through its data centers to make it harder for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies to spy on users’ data. Google "changed its systems" after documents revealed by Snowden showed that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters had collected information on Google users, Schmidt told FP.

"We addressed that," he said. "But that is not an endorsement of either Snowden or bulk leaking."

Schmidt said that Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, committed a crime when he disclosed classified information in 2013 to journalists in violation of his government security clearance. (Schmidt said that he himself holds a high-level clearance.)

"[Snowden] has admitted that he violated those rules. That would be evidence of his own illegality," Schmidt said. "There’s a separate question as to how society should treat such people, and to me that question is where you fall on the whistleblower versus traitor line, and I think society will sort that out."

Schmidt didn’t say where he fell on that line. Asked whether Snowden should be tried in a U.S. criminal court, the Google executive deferred. "That is a question above my pay grade."

But Schmidt questioned the wisdom and the usefulness of some NSA programs that Snowden revealed, including the agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

"I think that you really want to think about whether society should do that," Schmidt said. The NSA compromised the privacy of some 330 million people, he said, by collecting their phone logs, information that was "recorded for posterity … to target 56 people of which one was a likely terrorist. That’s their public statement. Does that make sense to you?" he asked.

Schmidt was referring to public statements by intelligence officials that the NSA used phone logs in a handful of cases to determine whether suspected terrorists were inside the United States and possibly planning attacks. President Barack Obama is currently weighing whether to continue the controversial program, perhaps by moving the data from the NSA and placing it under the control of the FBI, phone companies, or a third party.

Schmidt didn’t say whether it made sense to him to maintain such a large database of information when it is so infrequently tapped. "I have a personal view on this," he continued, "but what’s more important is to have the debate. Until Snowden leaked these things, which he clearly did illegally, we weren’t having this debate."

Schmidt has been less hesitant to condemn spying by the NSA that occurred overseas and that affected his company directly. (Google doesn’t collect phone records.) He has called the practice, revealed in documents leaked by Snowden, of tapping into cable connections between Google’s data centers in other countries and the public Internet "outrageous" and possibly illegal. Google executives have maintained that they only hand over customers’ data to government agencies when presented with a legal order.

Schmidt said he had come to the conclusion that the kind of "bulk leaking" Snowden committed, which he described as releasing hundreds of thousands of documents en masse, risked lives because sensitive information could be revealed in those files. It’s an issue he explores in the recently published paperback edition of his book, The New Digital Age, which he co-authored with Jared Cohen, a former State Department official who runs Google Ideas, which explores technology and public policy.

"We do not endorse the unilateral bulk leaking of data. We think it’s too dangerous," Schmidt said. He acknowledged that, to date, no one is known to have died as the result of Snowden’s disclosures. (National security officials have said that the leaks could "gravely impact" intelligence operations and risk the safety of military personnel.) But Schmidt said he didn’t rule out the possibility that future leaks could cost lives. "People could get seriously hurt by this. This is not a good thing."

Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, Schmidt also said that efforts by foreign governments to protect their citizens’ personal information and communications from intelligence agencies, such as by moving data centers to within their borders or setting up private computer networks, would fail to work.

"It would be very difficult to do that without putting in very hard gateways" to block interaction with the broader Internet, Schmidt said, referring specifically to a plan announced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to build a European network that would avoid routing people’s emails and other communications through the United States, where they could be intercepted.

"Eventually you end up with sort of a police state barrier. It slows things down. It makes encryption stop working," Schmidt said. "Eventually, Germany would need to have its own domain name system.… It just doesn’t work."

But Schmidt said he doubted that Germany or any other country would follow through on plans to Balkanize the Internet. "We talked to the Germans in order to see how serious they are. It doesn’t seem like what they’re talking about is really going to happen."

Schmidt allowed that domestic political concerns in Germany, where he said citizens have gone "berserk" over NSA spying and revelations that the agency tapped Merkel’s phone, may have persuaded the German leader to take a tough public line against U.S. intelligence efforts. "But I can report to you that there is not a credible plan to disconnect any country from the Internet, except Iran," Schmidt said, referring to Iranian officials’ public announcements that they intend to sever their network connections to the outside world and filter all traffic that moves in and out of the country.

Iran has also been on the radar of U.S. national security officials, who are increasingly concerned about the Islamic Republic’s efforts to build up an offensive cyberforce, which officials believe has been used to attack banks and possibly energy facilities.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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