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NSA Scandal

Appelbaum: 'No belief that president has control'

Jacob Appelbaum is one of the leading US computer security activists and, along with Laura Poitras, a confidant of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. DW spoke to Appelbaum about the NSA and living in exile.

DW: In a major policy speech on surveillance last month, Obama specifically addressed Section 215 of the Patriot Act (business records provision which allows for the collection of metadata - the ed.) and announced that he has instructed the intelligence community and the Attorney General to develop options for a "new approach." What's your take on that?

Jacob Appelbaum: The reality is that Obama's speech was an endorsement of mass surveillance of whole populations. When Obama talks about mass surveillance and says that it's only used for good, or that it can be used for good, and that yes, there is of course the threat of civil liberties violations, he's completely missing the historical context, especially when we talk about it as a foreign power doing it to other countries. In fact, that's exactly what the Nazis did. They used that surveillance in Holland and in France and in other places in order to mobilize their mass murder.

What he didn't say in his speech was that we should secure our communications systems and ensure liberty against all kinds of attackers. So for example, the Chinese, the Russians, myself - name anybody that has an understanding of the way modern communications networks work - those people will be able to exploit the loopholes that the NSA, the CIA, the US government in general, that they leave in, that the FBI leaves in so that they can exploit it. I've even had the opportunity to confront a legal director of the FBI in New York City a couple of years ago. And I said, 'you leave these vulnerabilities in, how is it that you ensure that other people don't exploit these vulnerabilities?' And she essentially said something to the effect of, 'well, you know, I can't speak to other people's law-breaking activities.'

If you ask some of the former Stasi people here in Berlin what they think, they say that the collection of this data will not go over well. It will be abused. You don't accumulate this kind of data and not abuse it. And the fact that someone might use it illegally - it's kind of a given. So when he (Obama - the ed.) talks about Section 215 and he talks about how we need to fill the gap, what he's actually saying is 'there are serious crimes that have been committed, but we did them for the right reasons.'

I was very disappointed by that and the most disappointing part - other than the endorsement of mass surveillance - was a complete lack of a critical understanding about how corporations have been forced to become secret agents of the state in a literal sense, where they're not allowed to speak freely about it.

And as we revealed in Der Spiegel, they've built specific attack vectors, exploit payloads, implants to go after American corporations. So they're leaving American companies in a state of weakness, where they know the iPhone can't be used in the Situation Room, where they know that that's the case because they can break into it and they choose to give up on communications security in favor of signals intelligence. And that ultimately leaves us vulnerable to everyone else that also plays that game. But I was so glad that Obama doesn't actually control the discussion and that there are other people that can force Obama, essentially, to comment on new things, by simply saying, hey we know that this is happening.

Yet it doesn't seem that there is any real oversight of the intelligence community. In a recent article published in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quoted US Senator Ron Wyden who used to quip: "What do I know? I'm only on the Intelligence Committee." Can anybody rein anything in, does anyone have checks on the NSA?

I went to Senator Wyden's office a couple of years ago and said, ‘I know what the secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act is, and I'd like to talk with someone about that because I think this is a problem.' And I told them what I thought this secret interpretation was, which is that basically everything is fair game and the ‘business records' provision is perhaps the scariest part because it makes corporations essentially agents of the state ...basically [they've] been told to give up their work product in secret to the intelligence agencies and that if they don't do that, they are violating some alleged legal power. And all of this happens in secret and they're not allowed to talk about it.

And Wyden's office was a little surprised - the staffer I told this to, he sort of dropped his jaw when I said this, I think, because I'm not supposed to know ... And then they started asking me,'well, when we go to China, what do you think we should do to secure our communications?' And I said, well this is exactly the problem. This discussion where it's this false trade-off between security and liberty is not taking into account, for example, that you are going to travel and you need privacy and for you to get this privacy and security, a lot of people have to have it, because when you pick up the phone to call your wife, here in the United States, because the FBI wants to wiretap me, the Chinese get to wiretap you too.

jacob appelbaum
photo: Malte Christians/dpa

Jacob Appelbaum

And it's inevitable, when you create structures that have access to this kind of power in secret, you can't have democratic oversight of them because by the very definition they exist outside of the rule of law, in terms of oversight.

We ask General Alexander and Clapper and Holder and Obama and then they lie to us. They lie to people that are on the intelligence committees. And that's because the system itself, the structure of the system is fundamentally an unjust structure. And so I don't have a lot of hope about the US reining in the intelligence community in this regard. In fact, I have almost no belief that the president has control over these things. It's really depressing to say that, but I think that that's true.

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