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.

Edward Snowden: Here’s how we take back the Internet

Speakers: Ed Snowden – a CIA & NSA computer specialist who came to notoriety when he released internal documents to the public, which showed evidence of spying on USA citizens and foreigners. Currently in exile in Russia.

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


Ed Snowden, currently exiled to Russia for releasing many documents showing evidence of NSA spying on citizens and foreign governments, appears by webcam robot to discuss his decisions to release the documents. An interview style of ‘talk’, rather than the more conventional lecture. Recommended for it’s thought-provoking style and discussion of the ideas of privacy vs security.

Ed as a sysadmin in Hawaii was uncomfortable with the sort of data he discovered, which was being taken in secret without oversight. He released this data to the journalists to encourage the freedom of the press to analyse and release it responsibly. The NSA says most of the things held are ‘metadata’, however PRISM program includes true content as well. When corporate America resisted handing over the content, they were taken to a secret court without oversight or coverage. Most of the main tech giants have given data to PRISM via warrants, but Ed also accuses the NSA of ‘hacking’ into Google’s internal servers to intercept data. For this reason, Ed wants the tech giants to enable encrypted browsing to prevent intelligence services from intercepting your browsing habits.

He talks about an NSA program called ‘Boundless Intelligence’, which intercepts more data from within USA than Russians intercept within Russia – a claim the US should not like to make. The chairman of the senate intelligence committee has minimal oversight of these interceptions, having not even seen audit reports before the Washington Post wanted comment on them.

Chris asked Ed why people should be scared if they have nothing to hide. Ed said this came to the rights of the individual – you shouldn’t give them up just because you might not need them. He said it is too much of an invasion of privacy to give access to all human interaction to all governments.

They then discussed Dick Cheney and some other government comments about this being the worse betrayal in US history, about the dire consequences. Ed countered that they are conflating public interest and national interest – that going to war in places that are no threat to the US does not serve the public interest. He also said that after a year we have seen no dire impacts from his releases.

Bullrush is a program where NSA influences companies to adopt standards which allow them (and other governments) backdoors to access the data. The goal is to weaken security of these companies. This will also weaken USA’s defence against foreign agents. NSA says the goal of these programs is to counter terrorism, but the government has said it has no value. Terrorism is an emotive word, and September 11 attacks were used as a secret justification to begin programs like Bullrush which were previously discussed and believed to be of minimal value.

The talk ends with introducing Tim Berners-Lee to the stage – the inventor of the internet. They discuss a magna carta for the internet- to encode the values of the digital generation into the internet. The ask whether the internet has increased the power of ‘Big Brother’ and their ease of surveillance, or of the public for fighting unlawful invasion of privacy.

When asked whether he would return to the US, he said he’d like to, but not if it would involve betraying his journalistic sources or watering down his message. The last year has been a reminder that democracy may die behind closed doors, but individuals are also born behind those doors. We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t need to give up our liberty to have security.