Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk

Speakers: Richard Ledgett – deputy director of the National Security Administration (NSA).

Interviewed by Chris Anderson – curator and current owner of TED talks with a background in journalism.


Chris Anderson interviews Richard Ledgett of NSA, in response to Ed Snowden’s talk I have tried to summarise, with Chris’ questions in bold, and Richard’s response afterwards.

What did you make of Snowden’s original talk?

There were some kernels of truth in Snowden’s talk, but plenty of untruths. The openness concerns raised are an important conversation being made at the moment.

Did Snowden have other avenues to reveal his concerns?

He could have talked to his supervisor, or the inspector-generals. Richard disputes that Snowden was a whistleblower in the conventional sense. However, Chris responds that contractors are not as protected, nor were previous whistleblowers treated well by the NSA.

How did Snowden put lives at risk?

Snowden revealed NSA’s capabilities, in a way that caused caused criminals and terrorists to change their communication channels, closing off some of NSA’s intelligence & response capability.

Chris speaks of Bullrun program: which weakened the security of the internet.

Some people use the internet to work against the US and it’s allies. The NSA needs an ability to respond to this, and it is impossible to differentiate between ‘bad guys’ internet and others. The NSA also has a second role to advise security protocols which it stands behind.

Chris summarises the last statement as if anything is justifiable to protect national security. 

Richard talks about balance between privacy and national security. The NSA needs to be more transparent about how it acquires and uses its information, but he believes they don’t need to be transparent about their operational capabilities.

Is this doing a disservice to the companies that the NSA forces to disclose data?

All countries have similar disclosure laws available to them, in the same way as the USA.

The US constitution allows freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. How do you categorise US citizens right to privacy?

NSA puts significant time and effort into protecting US citizen’s privacy. Richard says he has an email account on the number 1 site used by terrorists, so he is invested in protecting ‘innocents’. He says there are shredding protocols to ignore the data of innocents. Foreigners are also protected by the same ideas. People should only be targetted if they are associated with a counter-terrorism investigation.

Is terrorism still a threat?

It is still the number 1 issue. There are places where Americans and Western foreigners are joining international organisations to “learn Jihad”. Cyberterrorism is another issue, where companies / citizens’ data is used against them, to steal technology or use commercial information to outbid.

Approximately 500 American’s have died over recent decades of Terrorism, and most have been home grown. People don’t believe that terrorism is still the #1 issue.

NSA’s programs have greatly reduced the risk of terrorism over recent years – preventing 54 attacks. Also, a single nuclear or biological threat would greatly increase the number of casualties.

Were the electronic interception programs discussed by Snowden responsible for preventing any of these 54 attacks?

People might say there isn’t a single threat where an attack would have occurred “but for” the electronic interception. However, they were one point in the ‘mosaic’ of information available

Is the word terrorism a cover to acquire more powers? Does the NSA discuss what powers are actually needed?

Internal discussion is key. In addition, the powers were approved by 2 different presidents and the full checks and balances of law.

How do you respond to legislators being shocked and surprised by the scale of NSA investigations?

Congress is a large body, with high turnover every 2 yrs. Congress members had the opportunity to make themselves aware, and the ones with direct responsibility over NSA were very clearly aware of the issues.

Regarding Cyber-attacks: is there a balance between offensive and defensive roles? Has the NSA weakened encryption, and made the US more vulnerable to cyberattacks?

Richard: “You said ‘weaken encryption’, I didn’t”. The NSA is heavily biased towards defense, and disclose vulnerabilities to the manufacturers when discovered. They are also working on transparency reports to disclose their releases to companies / manufacturers.

Has Snowden opened a debate that matters?

Richard did not like the way he did it – by risking the operations and lives of US and it’s allies. However he is glad he started the conversation.

Is it possible to broker an amnesty deal with Snowden, if he surrenders all his remaining documents?

It is always possible to talk about, if the government could get something out of it.

What is your idea worth spreading?

Learn the facts, this is an important conversation about privacy and personal data. Don’t rely on headlines, soundbites or one sided conversations.

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