‘We have moved to a society in which we are forced to live our lives naked before power’
The man whose state surveillance revelations rocked the world speaks exclusively to the Guardian about his new life and concerns for the future
The world’s most famous whistleblower, Edward Snowden, says he has detected a softening in public hostility towards him in the US over his disclosure of top-secret documents that revealed the extent of the global surveillance programmes run by American and British spy agencies.
In an exclusive two-hour interview in Moscow to mark the publication of his memoirs, Permanent Record, Snowden said dire warnings that his disclosures would cause harm had not come to pass, and even former critics now conceded “we live in a better, freer and safer world” because of his revelations.
In the book, Snowden describes in detail for the first time his background, and what led him to leak details of the secret programmes being run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s secret communication headquarters, GCHQ.
He describes the 18 years since the September 11 attacks as “a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts and secret wars”.
Snowden also said: “The greatest danger still lies ahead, with the refinement of artificial intelligence capabilities, such as facial and pattern recognition.
“An AI-equipped surveillance camera would be not a mere recording device, but could be made into something closer to an automated police officer.”
He is concerned the US and other governments, aided by the big internet companies, are moving towards creating a permanent record of everyone on earth, recording the whole of their daily lives.
While Snowden feels justified in what he did six years ago, he told the Guardian he was reconciled to being in Russia for years to come and was planning for his future on that basis.
He reveals he secretly married his partner, Lindsay Mills, two years ago in a Russian courthouse.
While he would rather be in the US or somewhere like Germany, he is relaxed in Russia, now able to lead a more or less normal daily life. He is less fearful than when he first arrived in 2013, when he felt lonely, isolated and paranoid that he could be targeted in the streets by US agents seeking retribution.
“I was very much a person the most powerful government in the world wanted to go away. They did not care whether I went away to prison. They did not care whether I went away into the ground. They just wanted me gone,” he said.
He has dispensed with the scarves, hats and coats he once used as disguises and now moves freely around the city, riding the metro, visiting art galleries or the ballet, joining friends in cafes and restaurants.
Permanent Record, which is being published on Tuesday in more than 20 countries, charts the shift that took him from working deep inside the NSA and the CIA to Hong Kong, where he handed over a cache of classified documents to journalists from the Guardian.
The documents revealed the scale of mass surveillance by the US, UK and their allies. He is high on the US wanted list and faces decades in jail if detained.
The US government could seize royalties from the book but the substantial advance has already been banked.
Normally averse to discussing his personal life, Snowden opened up in both the interview and the memoirs to speak for the first time about his life in Moscow and even the person he describes as “the love of my life”, Mills.
Polls taken in the US in 2013 and the years immediately after showed an almost equal split between those who viewed him as a traitor and those who saw him as a hero.
“It is funny that now, six years later, the controversial image that I had has begun to soften.”
Even people who dislike him personally were now prepared to accept “we live in a better, freer and safer world because of the revelations of mass surveillance”, he said.
One of the Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, said he would like to see a resolution that would end Snowden’s permanent exile, while another, the congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, said in May she would pardon him.
Fears that President Vladimir Putin might hand him over as a gift to Donald Trump have receded as relations between the US and Russia have cooled.
Snowden said it helped that Russia viewed him as useful publicity.
“A country whose political troubles are legendary, whose problems with human rights we hear about every single day has finally, somehow, managed to have one bright spot on their human rights record … Why would they give that up?”
He toyed with calling his memoirs The New Forever or Welcome to Forever before settling on Permanent Record, which reflects his concerns about the way state-run and private companies are hoarding data.