Edward Snowden videoconferenced with a journalism roundtable at Editors Lab participants at Süddeutsche Zeitung (home of the Panama Papers) about the effect of state surveillance on a free press.
The whistleblowing ex-NSA contractor told the journalists that while cryptographic tools are excellent at preventing mass surveillance, people who are personally targeted by state surveillance — like investigative journalists hoping to hold their governments to account — are in "an arms race you simply cannot win."
Rather than relying exclusively on technical countermeasures, Snowden says journalists must "be as adversarial as possible" in lobbying for strong curbs on surveillance with democratic accountability for spy agencies.
In order to control the risk he was taking, Snowden explains, "I set out to devise a system in which I could mitigate those risks to the maximum extent possible by imitating the model of checks and balances that was supposed to exist in the United States government." In order for Snowden to grant journalists access to the documents he believed would "demonstrate criminal activities that had occurred within government" two essential conditions needed to be met in his ad-hoc check-and-balance system.
First, every story needed to serve the public interest "in a democratic context" — "that is wasn't just newsy".
Second, news organisations needed to approach the government in advance of publication, not for a veto, but to explain what they were planning to write, why they were planning to write it and to see if they understood the story fully. The journalists also needed to ask if they were going too far and putting individuals at risk, i.e. revealing an agent behind enemy lines.