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Edward Snowden is a hero, says Steve Wozniak

ITP.net INTERVIEW: Apple co-founder expresses support for NSA whistleblower

Wozniak: [Snowden] is a hero to me, because he gave up his own life to… help the rest of us.
Wozniak: [Snowden] is a hero to me, because he gave up his own life to… help the rest of us.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak believes former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is "a hero" and that it is "almost impossible" for technology consumers to guarantee their privacy.

Snowden made global headlines in 2013, when he fled a US National Security Agency office in Hawaii with countless documents detailing surveillance operations by US and UK spy agencies. He passed the sensitive material to newspapers in Germany, Hong Kong, the US and the UK, and eventually settled in Russia on a temporary visa, where he remains the extradition target of US prosecutors.

In an interview with ITP.net, backstage at the Gartner Symposium in Dubai's Madinat Arena, Wozniak, when asked about Snowden, expressed strongly worded support for the 31-year-old fugitive.

"[He's a] total hero to me," he said. "Total hero. Not necessarily [for] what he exposed, but the fact that he internally came from his own heart, his own belief in the United States Constitution, what democracy and freedom was about, and now a federal judge has said that NSA data collection was unconstitutional."

In December 2013, Federal Judge Richard Leon declared the NSA's mass collection of meta-data to be in violation of the US Constitution's fourth amendment, which gives protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Leon used the phrase "almost Orwellian" to describe the spy agency's activities and suggested James Madison, the fourth US president and the Constitution's principle author, would be "aghast" at the covert surveillance.

Snowden welcomed the 2013 decision. "I acted on my belief that the NSA's mass surveillance programmes would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts," he said at the time, in a statement given through Glenn Greenwald, a former Guardian journalist to whom Snowden gave sensitive documents.

"Today, a secret programme authorised by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans' rights. It is the first of many."

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that a federal court found Section 215 of the US Patriot Act, which authorised the mass surveillance programmes, to be insufficient grounds for justifying the NSA's collection of domestic communications data.

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Wozniak, who designed the Apple I and Apple II computers and, in the years before founding Apple, hacked telephone systems, thinks legacy operating systems are extremely difficult to retroactively purge of vulnerabilities, and believes the non-technical public faces an uphill struggle to protect their private data.

"It's almost impossible [to protect yourself] because today's modern operating systems generally get so huge that they can only come from a few sources, like Microsoft, Google and Apple," he said. "And those operating systems have so many millions of lines of code in them, built by tens of thousands of engineers over time, that it's so difficult to go back and detect anything in it that's spying on you. It's like having a house with 50,000 doors and windows and you have no idea where there might be a little camera."

Wozniak spoke warmly of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a system developed in 1991 to encrypt messages sent from computer to computer by encrypting data on one computer and decrypting it on another.

"Sending mail should be secure," he said. "[When PGP came out], if Apple and Microsoft had built it into their operating system, it would have been a permanent part of email and all email would have been secure. Now we're talking about making laws where you cannot use encryption. It's almost like you can't have any secrets anymore. And the modern generation just accepts this as the status quo."

Wozniak feels Snowden played a vital and courageous role in exposing mass surveillance, given that he may not be able to return to his native US.

"He's a hero to me, because he gave up his own life to do it," said Wozniak. "And he was a young person, to give up his life. But he did it for reasons of trying to help the rest of us and not just mess up a company he didn't like."