Kyodo News
Back to Main
Whistleblower Snowden warns of looming mass surveillance in Japan

Edward Snowden, who exposed extensive U.S. surveillance programs
in 2013, warned this week that Japan may be moving closer to sweeping
surveillance of ordinary citizens as the government eyes a legal
change to enhance police powers in the name of counterterrorism.

"This is the beginning of a new wave of mass surveillance in
Japan," the 33-year-old American said in an exclusive interview with
Kyodo News while in exile in Russia, referring to a so-called
anti-conspiracy bill that has stirred controversy in and outside
Japan as having the potential to undermine civil liberties.

The consequences could be even graver when combined with the use
of a wide-reaching online data collection tool called XKEYSCORE, the
former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency said. He also
gave credence to the authenticity of new NSA papers exposed through
The Intercept, a U.S. online media outlet, earlier this year that
showed the agency's surveillance tool has already been shared with

The remarks by the intelligence expert are the latest warning
over the Japanese government's push to pass the controversial bill
through parliament, which criminalizes the planning and preparatory
actions of 277 serious crimes.

In an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in
mid-May, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy stated
that the bill could lead to undue restrictions of privacy and freedom
of expression due to its potentially broad application -- a claim the
Japanese government has strongly protested against.

Snowden said he agrees with the U.N.-appointed expert Joseph
Cannataci, arguing the bill is "not well explained" and raises
concerns that the government may have intentions other than its
stated goal of cracking down on terrorism and organized crimes ahead
of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The anti-conspiracy law proposed by the government "focuses on
terrorism and everything else that's not related to terrorism --
things like taking plants from the forestry reserve," he said. "And
the only real understandable answer (to the government's desire to
pass the bill) that this is a bill that authorizes the use of
surveillance in new ways because now everyone can be a criminal."

Based on his experience of using XKEYSCORE himself, Snowden said
authorities could become able to intercept everyone's communications,
including people organizing political movements or protests, and put
them "in a bucket."

The records would be simply "pulled out of the bucket" whenever
necessary and the public would not be able to know whether such
activities are done legally or secretly by the government because
there are no sufficient legal safeguards in the bill, Snowden said.

Snowden finds the current situation in Japan reminiscent of what
he went through in the United States following the terror attacks on
Sept. 11, 2001.

In passing the Patriot Act, which strengthened the U.S.
government's investigative powers in the wake of the attacks, the
government said similar things to what the Japanese government is
saying now, such as "these powers are not going to be targeted
against ordinary citizens" and "we're only interested in finding
al-Qaida and terrorists," according to Snowden.

But within a few short years of the enactment of the Patriot
Act, the U.S. government was using the law secretly to "collect the
phone records of everyone in the United States, and everyone around
the world who they could access" through the largest phone companies
in the United States, Snowden said, referring to the revelations made
in 2013 through top-secret documents he leaked.

Even though it sacrifices civil liberties, mass surveillance is
not effective, Snowden said. The U.S. government's privacy watchdog
concluded in its report in 2014 that the NSA's massive telephone
records program showed "minimal value" in safeguarding the nation
from terrorism and that it must be ended.

On Japan's anti-conspiracy bill, Snowden said it should include
strong guarantees of human rights and privacy and ensure that those
guarantees are "not enforced through the words of politicians but
through the actions of courts."

"This means in advance of surveillance, in all cases the
government should seek an individualized warrant, and individualized
authorization that this surveillance is lawful and appropriate in
relationship to the threat that's presented by the police," he said.

He also said allowing a government to get into the habit of
collecting the communications of everyone through powerful
surveillance tools could dangerously change the power relationship
between the public and government to something closer to "subject and
ruler" instead of partners, which is how it should be in a democracy.

Arguably, people in Japan may not make much of what Snowden sees
as the rise of new untargeted and indiscriminate mass surveillance,
thinking that they have nothing to hide or fear.

But he insists that privacy is not about something to "hide" but
about "protecting" an open and free society where people can be
different and can have their own ideas.

Freedom of speech would not mean much if people do not have the
space to figure out what they want to say, or share their views with
others they trust, to develop them before introducing them into the
context of the world, he said.

"When you say 'I don't care about privacy, because I've nothing
to hide,' that's no different than saying you don't care about
freedom of speech, because you've nothing to say," he added.

Snowden, who was dressed in a black suit, said toward the end of
his more than 100-minute interview at a hotel in Moscow that living
in exile is not "a lifestyle that anyone chooses voluntarily." He
hopes to return home while continuing active exchanges online with
people in various countries.

"The beautiful thing about today is that I can be in every
corner of the world every night. I speak at U.S. universities every
month. It's important to understand that I don't really live in
Moscow. I live on the internet," he said.

Snowden showed no regrets over taking the risk of becoming a
whistleblower and being painted by his home country as a "criminal"
or "traitor," facing espionage charges at home for his historic
document leak.

"It's scary as hell, but it's worth it. Because if we don't do
it, if we see the truth of crimes or corruption in government, and we
don't say something about it, we're not just making the world worse
for our children, we're making the world worse for us, and we're
making ourselves worse," he said. (June 1)

Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden
holds documents showing the agency's surveillance tool has already
been shared with Japan during an exclusive interview with Kyodo
News in Moscow on May 29, 2017. Snowden warned that Japan
may be moving closer to sweeping surveillance of ordinary citizens
as the government eyes a legal change to enhance police powers
in the name of counterterrorism. (Kyodo)