My weekly Guardian column:
William Binney is one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA. He was a leading code-breaker against the Soviet Union during the Cold War but resigned soon after September 11, disgusted by Washington’s move towards mass surveillance.
On 5 July he spoke at a conference in London organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism and revealed the extent of the surveillance programs unleashed by the Bush and Obama administrations.
“At least 80% of fibre-optic cables globally go via the US”, Binney said. “This is no accident and allows the US to view all communication coming in. At least 80% of all audio calls, not just metadata, are recorded and stored in the US. The NSA lies about what it stores.”
The NSA will soon be able to collect 966 exabytes a year, the total of internet traffic annually. Former Google head Eric Schmidt once arguedthat the entire amount of knowledge from the beginning of humankind until 2003 amount to only five exabytes.
Binney, who featured in a 2012 short film by Oscar-nominated US film-maker Laura Poitras, described a future where surveillance is ubiquitous and government intrusion unlimited.
“The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control”, Binney said, “but I’m a little optimistic with some recent Supreme Court decisions, such as law enforcement mostly now needing a warrant before searching a smartphone.”
He praised the revelations and bravery of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and told me that he had indirect contact with a number of other NSA employees who felt disgusted with the agency’s work. They’re keen to speak out but fear retribution and exile, not unlike Snowden himself, who is likely to remain there for some time.
Unlike Snowden, Binney didn’t take any documents with him when he left the NSA. He now says that hard evidence of illegal spying would have been invaluable. The latest Snowden leaks, featured in the Washington Post, detail private conversations of average Americans with no connection to extremism.
It shows that the NSA is not just pursuing terrorism, as it claims, but ordinary citizens going about their daily communications. “The NSA is mass-collecting on everyone”, Binney said, “and it’s said to be about terrorism but inside the US it has stopped zero attacks.”
The lack of official oversight is one of Binney’s key concerns, particularly of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa), which is held out by NSA defenders as a sign of the surveillance scheme’s constitutionality.
“The Fisa court has only the government’s point of view”, he argued. “There are no other views for the judges to consider. There have been at least 15-20 trillion constitutional violations for US domestic audiences and you can double that globally.”
A Fisa court in 2010 allowed the NSA to spy on 193 countries around the world, plus the World Bank, though there’s evidence that even the nations the US isn’t supposed to monitor – Five Eyes allies Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – aren’t immune from being spied on. It’s why encryption is today so essential to transmit information safely.
Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a “totalitarian mentality” that was the “greatest threat” to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century. Despite this remarkable power, Binney still mocked the NSA’s failures, including missing this year’s Russian intervention in Ukraine and the Islamic State’s take-over of Iraq.
The era of mass surveillance has gone from the fringes of public debate to the mainstream, where it belongs. The Pew Research Centre released a report this month, Digital Life in 2025, that predicted worsening state control and censorship, reduced public trust, and increased commercialisation of every aspect of web culture.
It’s not just internet experts warning about the internet’s colonisation by state and corporate power. One of Europe’s leading web creators, Lena Thiele, presented her stunning series Netwars in London on the threat of cyber warfare. She showed how easy it is for governments and corporations to capture our personal information without us even realising.
Thiele said that the US budget for cyber security was US$67 billion in 2013 and will double by 2016. Much of this money is wasted and doesn’t protect online infrastructure. This fact doesn’t worry the multinationals making a killing from the gross exaggeration of fear that permeates the public domain.
Wikileaks understands this reality better than most. Founder Julian Assange and investigative editor Sarah Harrison both remain in legal limbo. I spent time with Assange in his current home at the Ecuadorian embassy in London last week, where he continues to work, release leaks, and fight various legal battles. He hopes to resolve his predicament soon.
At the Centre for Investigative Journalism conference, Harrison stressed the importance of journalists who work with technologists to best report the NSA stories. “It’s no accident”, she said, “that some of the best stories on the NSA are in Germany, where there’s technical assistance from people like Jacob Appelbaum.”
A core Wikileaks belief, she stressed, is releasing all documents in their entirety, something the group criticised the news site The Intercept for not doing on a recent story. “The full archive should always be published”, Harrison said.
With 8m documents on its website after years of leaking, the importance of publishing and maintaining source documents for the media, general public and court cases can’t be under-estimated. “I see Wikileaks as a library”, Assange said. “We’re the librarians who can’t say no.”
With evidence that there could be a second NSA leaker, the time for more aggressive reporting is now. As Binney said: “I call people who are covering up NSA crimes traitors”.