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4 revelations from a pre-whistleblower interview with Edward Snowden

Before Edward Snowden revealed details of NSA spying operations to the Guardian, he gave this anonymous interview.


Kevin Collier


Posted on Jul 8, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 11:55 am CDT

Edward Snowden has still only given a handful of interviews since fleeing the U.S. with a heap of files detailing how the NSA spies on (basically) everybody. 

But a few weeks before he became the Edward Snowden, he spoke at length to Jacob Appelbaum, who became a person of particular interest to U.S. customs officials after he worked with WikiLeaks and the TOR project.

Published in Der Spiegel Sunday, the interview, conducted in May, shows Snowden warning of both the scope of NSA spying and of its vast collusion with other countries’ intelligence agencies. The interview was set up by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who filmed Snowden’s famous first public interview with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. 

Neither man knew the other’s identity at the time, as it turns out, and the interview was conducted entirely by encrypted email. “I did not know that the interlocutor was Edward Snowden until he revealed himself as such in public in Hong Kong,” Appelbaum said. “I had expected that he was someone in his sixties.” 

Later, Appelbaum said, he was able to contact Snowden directly and confirm it was him in that conversation.

These are the four key revelations Snowden made in that early interview:

1) Before Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, the program that allows the NSA to track foreigners who use American sites like Google and Facebook, he warned of the NSA’s desire for information:

“[The NSA is] tasked to know everything of importance that happens outside of the United States. That’s a significant challenge. “

2)  Before he showed that the NSA shares information with France, the U.K., and the Netherlands, Snowden told Appelbaum that the agency partners with a number of U.S. allies, including Germany.

“We’re in bed together with the Germans, the same as with most other Western countries. For example, we tip them off when someone we want is flying through their airports (that we for example, have learned from the cellphone of a suspected hacker’s girlfriend in a totally unrelated third country—and they hand them over to us. They don’t ask to justify how we know something, and vice versa, to insulate their political leaders from the backlash of knowing how grievously they’re violating global privacy.”

3) The NSA is particularly proud of how it can tap American companies for information, like how Verizon hands over records of every call made in the U.S.

“The NSA considers the identities of telecom collaborators to be the jewels in their crown of omniscience. As a general rule, US-based multinationals should not be trusted until they prove otherwise.”

4) Snowden went into detail about the U.K.’s Tempora program, even more invasive than the known American programs.

“TEMPORA is the signals intelligence community’s first ‘full-take’ Internet buffer that doesn’t care about content type and pays only marginal attention to the Human Rights Act. It snarfs everything, in a rolling buffer to allow retroactive investigation without missing a single bit. Right now the buffer can hold three days of traffic, but that’s being improved. Three days may not sound like much, but remember that that’s not metadata. ‘Full-take’ means it doesn’t miss anything, and ingests the entirety of each circuit’s capacity. If you send a single ICMP packet 5 and it routes through the UK, we get it. If you download something and the CDN (Content Delivery Network) happens to serve from the UK, we get it. If your sick daughter’s medical records get processed at a London call center … well, you get the idea.”

Photo by jimkillock/Flickr, illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Jul 8, 2013, 1:22 pm CDT