Snowden, Ellsberg ask hackers to help obscure whistleblower activity

Crowds of people came out to see Daniel Ellsberg chat with Edward Snowden at HOPE X conference.

Snowden effect: Insider threat grips European companies
Snowden effect: Insider threat grips European companies

Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, whose leaks of classified documents rocked the public and exposed the US government's illegal activities four decades apart, both appealed to hackers and security pros attending the HOPE X hackers conference in New York on Saturday to continue to thwart government access to citizen data and create a safer environment for whistleblowers to make their revelations.

Their conversation repeatedly drew cheers from the packed room where crowds were turned away long before they reached the door. Viewing rooms on two other floors of the hosting hotel were also filled to capacity as news of the Ellsberg/Snowden talk spread.

“You people need to make it possible…through codes and ciphers” for whistleblowers to leak information without losing their freedom or livelihood or “going broke,” said Ellsberg.

Echoing the sentiment later in the afternoon, Snowden called for security specialists to “attack these systems, to work as adversaries, to find holes and fix them” so that whistleblowers can speak more freely and citizens can protect their private information and communications.

After presenting a keynote address in which he recounted his infamous all-night marathon at a photocopier and his subsequent short stint as a fugitive eluding the FBI after releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg held a conversation with Snowden via satellite linkup in Russia. Praising Snowden for being willing to give up essentially his life to reveal the extent of NSA's illegal spying programme, Ellsberg noted he had just about lost hope that there was anyone willing to stand up, do the right thing and reveal the wrong-doing and overreach of government—and within corporations—until Chelsea Manning, and then Snowden. “My feeling is I have a new hero now,” said Ellsberg, his admiration evident.

The two “leakers,” as Ellsberg referred to them, called on the hacker community to bring the full force of technology and specialised skills to bear to help potential whistleblowers make important revelations anonymously, without fear of discovery. “Technology powers dissent,” said Snowden, turning to Ellsberg and noting, “The copy machine may not seem like a killer app but it let you do it.”

Snowden, an ardent advocate of encryption, noted that it is only “an important first step.” It may protect the content of communications, but it does not prevent government from gleaning intelligence or making deductions based on “association.” Snowden warned that the government can employ the same techniques it uses “to discover spies” to uncover associations between citizens, such as whistleblowers and journalists. For instance, a call log at a federal agency might show that someone had placed a call to a newspaper reporter after hours. A quick check of who was in the building at the time might help government spies determine who likely placed the call and was responsible for an ensuing leak.

The answer, Snowden said, lies in a mix of technologies including Tor, which anonymises users, and other methods such as mixed routing, which protects information and communications and ensures it is “non-attributable” and “resistant” to analysis.

Ruing a post-9/11 world where government has grabbed more control and citizens have unwittingly made more concessions regarding privacy and freedoms, he warned against the establishment of a British-type secrets act and bristled at the White House suggestion that the country needs to take steps to reduce the number of whistleblowers. The opposite, both Ellsberg and Snowden contended, is true.

During the talk, Ellsberg, who levelled some of his harshest criticism at former Vice President Dick Cheney, encouraged whistleblowers to do the right thing and drag harmful corporate secrets into the spotlight. Just as tobacco companies withheld information regarding the dangers of their products, Ellsberg felt certain that oil and gas companies are hiding intelligence that man-made global warming is a very real and present danger.

First published in SC Magazine US.