Why Should We Care About Keeping Secrets?

Jan 23, 2015
Originally published on March 9, 2016 12:51 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Keeping Secrets

About Glenn Greenwald's TED Talk

Journalist Glenn Greenwald makes the case for why you need to care about privacy, even if you're "not doing anything to hide."

About Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most recent book, No Place to Hide, is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the release of documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The NSA reporting he led for The Guardian was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He is the founder of the Web site The Intercept.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


So with all the ways that we can be tracked now and, like, our secrets can be tracked, how do we stay below the radar?

GLENN GREENWALD: You can use encryption, which I do. You can use certain phone services that are very, very difficult for the government to tap into, which I do. You can try and use cash more often than credit cards or debit cards, or not use a cell phone.

RAZ: Glenn Greenwald knows how to keep secrets. He also knows how to share them - really, really big secrets. In 2013, he got access to thousands of government documents. They were given to him by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And in those documents, lots of things governments around the world did not want us to know about how they were gathering massive amounts of cell phone and Internet data about us. So why should you care? Well, here's Glenn's answer as told on the Ted stage.


GREENWALD: There is an entire genre of YouTube videos devoted to an experience which I am certain everyone in this room has had. It entails an individual who, thinking they're alone, engages in some expressive behavior while singing, generating, dancing, some mild sexual activity, only to discover that in fact they are not alone, that that there is a person watching and lurking. The discovery of which causes them to immediately cease what they're doing in horror. The sense of shame and humiliation in their face is palpable. It's the sense of this is something I'm willing to do only if no one else is watching.

This is the crux of the work on which I have been singularly focused - the question of why privacy matters; a question that has arisen in the context of a global debate enabled by the revelations of Edward Snowden that the United States and its partners, unbeknownst to the entire world, has converted the Internet, once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democratization, into an unprecedented zone of mass indiscriminate surveillance.

RAZ: OK, so Edward Snowden comes to you with, like, thousands of documents. How did you decide what to write about?

GREENWALD: When Edward Snowden came to us he, essentially, said that, you know, he had the ability obviously to take all of those documents and simply upload them onto the Internet. And he said he did not want to do that. That he instead wanted every document subjected to the standard journalistic test, which is does the public interest of publishing them outweigh the potential harm that you may cause by doing so? There are a lot of secrets that we came into the possession of which we didn't publish. We published a small percentage, actually, of the material that he gave us in recognition of the idea that even governments have the right to keep certain secrets.

Obviously, if we had the nuclear codes, we wouldn't publish those. We wouldn't publish the names of covert agents who were in the field and whose identity would be destroyed. If a government is at war, they have the right to keep their war plans secret in terms of troop movements and the like. So things of that nature and there's a lot of categories like that.

RAZ: Some people listening to this, Glenn, would say, like, how come you're the one who gets to decide?

GREENWALD: Well, first of all, I think it's important to recognize that, you know, if you're a responsible journalist, you're never actually making that choice by yourself. There's always, you know - even if people within the news organization all agree in the beginning that it's something that should be published, we encourage people to take the position that it shouldn't published just so we can have the debate. But then we also go to the government and we invite the government to make their best case about why specific information shouldn't be published. And although we usually reject their request not to publish, there have been a couple of occasions when they have offered persuasive rational and we didn't.

RAZ: I mean, so you've never been in the position where you thought after the fact, I shouldn't have done that? Like, that's a secret I should not have reported.

GREENWALD: No, no, definitely not. Like, when I lay awake at night wondering whether I made the right decisions, what bothers me way more is not the question of whether I published too much, it's whether or not we've published enough.


GREENWALD: There is a very common sentiment, even among people who are uncomfortable with mass surveillance, which says that only people who are engaged in bad acts have a reason to want to hide and to care about their privacy. The people who are actually saying that are engaged in a very extreme act of self-deprecation. What they're really saying is I have agreed to make myself such a harmless and unthreatening and uninteresting person that I actually don't fear having the government know what it is that I'm doing.

This mindset has found what I think is its purest expression in a 2009 interview with the longtime CEO of Google Eric Schmidt, who when asked all the different ways his company is causing invasions of privacy for hundreds of millions of people around the world said this - he said if you're doing something that you don't want other people to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

RAZ: I mean, a lot of people would agree with that, right? I mean, like, in the case of the government, people might say OK, you know, so the government might be collecting data about me, but, I mean, at least they're trying to keep us safe from terrorists and I'm not doing anything wrong anyway so why should I care?

GREENWALD: Well, there's several reasons. I mean, first of all, there's a very long history of the government being able to use exactly that kind of power for all sorts of nefarious purposes, whether it's spying on Martin Luther King or other civil rights and anti-war activists. So even if you're not somebody who is a civil rights leader or who wants to be an activist for democracy, you have a really strong interest in having the people who are being able to do those things without fear that they're being monitored and blackmailed.

Another thing I would say to them is that people who live in a surveillance society are being harmed by it, even if they don't realize it. If you're alone in the bedroom or the bathroom and you're singing in the shower, you're willing to be really expressive. But if you realize that somebody's actually able to see what you're doing, you become much more restrained. And that's a trivial example but it shows the harm of living in a surveillance state, even if you're somebody who doesn't think that harm exists.

RAZ: I mean, the thing is that, like, people voluntarily give up secrets every day, right? I mean, they, like, feed tons of data points into Facebook. I mean, so couldn't you argue that nothing is really secret anymore?

GREENWALD: No, I don't think you can argue that. I think that it's certainly true that part of what we are are social animals, which means we do have a necessity for other people to know what we're thinking and doing and achieving, which is why people who are put into solitary confinement go insane because it's just such a violation of the human condition. But there is a - an at least equally critical aspect of being a human being into what constitutes human nature and that is the desire to seek out privacy - a place where we can go where nobody knows what it is that we're doing.


GREENWALD: Over the last 16 months as I've debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me I don't really worry about invasions of privacy because I don't have anything to hide. I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say here's my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts. Not just the nice, respectable work one in your name but all of them because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you're doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you're not a bad person, if you're doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide. Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.


GREENWALD: I check that email account religiously - all the time. It's a very desolate place. And there's a reason for that, which is that we, as human beings, even those of us who, in words, disclaim the importance of own privacy, instinctively understand the profound importance of it. There are all sorts of things that we do and think that we're willing to tell our physician or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse or our best friend that would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn.

RAZ: I mean, people who know about you, right, think of you as somebody who exposes secrecy, right? But I wonder whether it's actually the opposite - that you think secrets are things that people should be allowed to keep and, in order to do that, you sort of made this decision to expose a larger secret.

GREENWALD: Yeah, I think that's a good point. I mean, there is an irony in the fact that we do believe that what we are doing is protecting the value of individual privacy, and yet we're doing it by publishing things that other people have tried to keep secret. But I think the central point to realize about that is that there is one faction that is invading people's privacy and another faction who essentially the victims of it. And what we've really done is expose this process of invasion of privacy, this victimizing, in order, as you say, to maximize people's ability to keep their own secrets.

RAZ: Do you think that in the future it will be easier or, like, harder for democracies to keep huge secrets from the citizens?

GREENWALD: It's much - it's going to be much, much harder, in fact, bordering on impossible. A lot of this has to do with the way that information is stored. So, 40 years ago, when Daniel Ellsberg wanted to leak the Pentagon papers - 9,000 pages of top-secret material - one of the primary obstacles he had was how do you even photocopy 9,000 top-secret pages without being detected? Now, because of the way - the digital way that information is stored, you can copy probably 10,000 Pentagon papers in less than 30 minutes. It's really impossible to safeguard that information. I mean, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and others took huge amounts of data right under the nose of the U.S. military and U.S. government without any detection whatsoever.

RAZ: I mean, if it's going to be harder for governments to keep secret simply because of the way data is stored, isn't it going to be harder for all of us to keep secrets?

GREENWALD: Sure. And, you know, one of the most important outcomes, I think, of the Snowden reporting is that the way people now understand the extent to which their individual privacy is been compromised has created this massive demand for technologies designed to do exactly that - to protect our data. So there are companies and activists all over the world working to create better encryption programs so that if we send an email, it is surrounded by an electronic shell that neither the U.S. government or the Chinese government or corporations can possibly invade, in order to protect our data from that kind of unwarranted collection.


GREENWALD: It is a realm of privacy, the ability to go somewhere where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us, in which creativity and exploration and descent exclusively reside. And that is the reason why, when we allow a society to exist in which we're subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled. The renowned socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg once said he who does not move does not notice his chains. We can try and render the chains of mass surveillance invisible or undetectable, but the constraints that it imposes on us do not become any less potent. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Glenn Greenwald, he's editor of The Intercept. His most recent book is "No Place To Hide." You can see his whole talk at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret")

JOSHUA HOMME: (Singing) I've got a secret I cannot say. Blame all the movement to give it away. We've got something to reveal. No one can know how we feel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.