Ed Snowden was not the only technologist to have defied the government’s secrecy programs. Ladar Levison and William Binney each paid the price for a moral stand against the U.S. government, and your digital privacy is better for it. This segment originally aired on WNYC's New Tech City.
The Other Ed Snowdens
BOB: The recently released documentary Citizenfour, from filmmaker Laura Poitras, is a portrait of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Here he is in the film sequestered in his hotel room in Hong Kong, days before the world hears his name for the first time.
Snowden: I think pretty much as soon as they start trying to make this about me, which should be any day now, um... I'll come out just to go hey, you know, this is, this is not a question of somebody skulking around in the shadows, and I'm not afraid of you.
BOB: Snowden says he's not afraid, but he knows what he's up against. A telling moment in the movie comes when Poitras films him covering his whole body with a red cloak before typing in a password to his laptop. And, ultimately, he went on the lam. But there are others who have defied the government secrecy programs who also appear in the Snowden films, who chose another route. Manoush Zomorodi spoke to them in the latest episode of her podcast, New Tech City.
Zomorodi: There are two other people who appear in Citizenfour. Two guys who are defying the government in the name of your privacy, even if you and I don't care as much as maybe we should. William Binney, the former NSA cryptographic genius, who actually designed much of the government's data-snooping architecture.
Binney:... so whatever resource they need, they get and it ultimately comes from the people, and it's being used against the people.
Speaker: Our very own tax dollars are being used against us.
Zomorodi : And Ladar Levison, the man behind the secure email service called Lavabit, that was used by Edward Snowden to send those emails to Laura Poitras. We got them together to find out what makes a privacy crusader tick. And in talking to them we discovered that there are three key reasons that they have turned over their lives to the privacy cause. The first reason: moral dilemma. Government asked both of these men to betray one of their core values. Now if you don't know Ladar Levison, last year he talked about when the FBI knocked on his door. They wanted to be able to snoop on the people using his encrypted mail service, Lavabit.
Levison: It put me in an ethically compromising position, yeah. I was being trusted to run a secure and private service, that's what I advertised, and if I felt like that if I was no longer a secure and private service, because I was sharing information with the federal government, in an uncontrolled and un-audited manner, I would be breaking that promise that I was making through my website.
Zomorodi: So Levison refuses to turn over the digital keys to his email service, Lavabit. The courts insist. So, Ladar hands them over, but he also shuts down the company, so the keys are useless. He basically burns his business to the ground to protect his users' privacy. Ladar was asked to choose between the government and his customers, and because he chose his customers, Ladar assumes that he is constantly being tracked by the government. So, he really is the perfect person to ask, among other things, what about that crazy red cape that Snowden puts over his head in the movie Citizenfour? What's he worried about, that there's like cameras somewhere, that the NSA can read his password?
Ladar: Or even just a microphone that records the number of key presses. You know if they knew that the password was 11 characters as opposed to 13 or 10, then they know that they only need to try 11 character combinations. It of course becomes more real, in terms of a threat, when you're talking about a room that might have a camera, maybe even a hidden camera, like in your smoke detector looking straight down at your keyboard. And it only takes one very small mistake to compromise your security. I was recently studying World War II. The reason we were able to break the German encryption scheme, the Tunney system, was because a German communications officer, sent the same four-thousand communication twice without rotating the encryption key. That one very so tiny mistake, was what allowed researchers at Bletchley Park, in the United Kingdom, to break the Tunney encryption system.
Zomorodi: So it takes only one screw-up if someone is actively trying to get your data. So basically Ladar says, if you're going to be paranoid, just make sure you're paranoid all the way. That's where he stands after the FBI put him in his moral dilemma. But you might be surprised how William Binney responds.
Binney: I don't buy into that, that's why I'm doing everything in public.
Zomorodi: William Binney, or Bill as he's known, is one of the very best code-breakers ever, at the NSA. He was there for over three decades, cracking encryption from the Soviet Union on up through 9/11. And here's the thing about Bill. He is one who created some of the amazing NSA programs. He explained one of them to Laura Poitras in a video for the New York Times back in 2012, before the Snowden leaks.
Binney: After 9/11, they took one of the programs that I had done, or the back-end part of it, and started to use it to spy on everybody in this country. That was a program they created called Stellar Wind...
Zomorodi: Binney never thought that Stellar Wind would be used on US citizens. And he was outraged. He quit the NSA, went public about it. Call him the pre-Edward Snowden NSA whistleblower. So naturally this ends his career with the government. And it also gets his house raided in 2007 by FBI agents who are looking for evidence.
Binney: So but they did that and they came in pointed a gun at me, I was getting out of the shower at the time, so they pointed a gun right at my old head, said hey. So... I wasn't too upset I just said, I suppose I could get dressed here? Trying to... they weren't intimidating me anyways so.
Zomorodi: That was the fallout of Bill Binney's moral choice. Since then he's been something of a gadfly to the intelligence community. An extremely smart gadfly, who knows exactly what the threat of spying truly entails. Now, here's the second reason he and Ladar keep going. They have faith in us, the uneducated public, and they are willing to tutor us patiently. You say in the movie, Bill, you say the best way to do things now, the best way to fight against the government, was actually what Deep Throat was doing. That was the only way you could really be sure of your privacy, is to meet your source in a parking garage and whisper to them.
Binney: That's correct. The old-fashioned way, analog.
Levison: And the fact is, even if you're an expert, like myself, I can't audit every device, every application that I use to ensure that it's not opening me up to attack. We heard in the early days of the Snowden leaks, that Angry Birds was actually transmitting private information about people's... who they were communicating with and how often, to the Angry Birds servers in the clear, so that anybody who controlled the network in between could harvest that information and throw it into a database. I mean so just installing that one free game would open people up to surveillance.
Zomorodi: Yup, even Angry Birds. Ok, so so far, they've had a moral dilemma, they've shown how much faith they have in us, the mostly uneducated public, and now the third reason. They see the future. And they know what their role is in shaping how we live with technology going forward.
Levison: You know everything that happened to me gave me a soapbox to stand upon, and if I'm doing anything it's trying to use that soap box to make a positive difference.
Zomorodi: Levison is working to improve the code behind his old email service Lavabit, and he's going to release it as a new service called Dark Mail. But for Bill Binney, he wants to be your proxy in a US court eventually. He's hoping that the US government sues him for speaking about his old work at the NSA.
Binney: They're in direct violation of the Constitution and I want to make that absolutely clear to everybody and do it in open court, where they can't hide. I would not buy into a silence approach. If I couldn't explain it in court I'd do it on the steps of the court, so everybody would know.
Levison: Just touching upon what Bill was talking about, I know for 36 years you worked for the agency, out of a patriotic sense that you were protecting this country, and I'm just wondering if you feel like everything that you've done in the last 10 years stems from that same sense of patriotic duty?
Binney: Absolutely. I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States -- not the president, or the NSA, or any other agency in the government. I took an oath to defend those principles.
Zomorodi: Two men, and their three reasons for turning their lives over the privacy cause. What do you think Ladar, meet Bill on the steps of the Supreme Court?
Levison: I would be there.
BOB: Manoush Zomorodi is the host of WNYC's New Tech City, a podcast devoted to exploring how technology is changing our lives. You can listen at WNYC dot org, or subscribe through iTunes.