Snowden: Congress needs to encrypt emails

The communications of lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill are not beyond the reach of spies and hackers, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden warned on Friday.

Without proper protections, he warned that sensitive details about upcoming bills and international deals could be unnervingly insecure.

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“We’re simply fooling ourselves if we think that our representatives in government can go along with this completely defenseless business-as-usual mode of communicating,” he said at a conference focusing on ways that reporters can better protect their data digitally. Snowden spoke remotely from Russia, where he has sought refuge since fleeing espionage charges in the U.S. last year.

“If we are an open book to all of our adversaries at the same time we have this very tight, closed, information control mindset towards the public ... the only people who know what’s gong on in our government are our enemies, and I don’t think that’s a sustainable model.”

Except for people working on intelligence issues, congressional offices do not routinely encrypt their emails or phone calls to protect content. According to Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Unions, some congressional websites also block users of Tor, a somewhat popular privacy software that masks users’ locations.

Snowden said that “absolutely” needs to change so that important government information remains a secret.

At the same time, the government leaker criticized a recent call by FBI Director James Comey for lawmakers to update a decades-old federal wiretapping law to force companies to create “back doors” into their products.

Creating a way for police to access people’s messages and devices would be “making the Internet less secure on a fundamental level,” Snowden said, since hackers in China or with a criminal organization could use the same pathway to steal people’s information.

“These things get found all the time, and they make a product completely unreliable and untrustworthy.”

Comey has said a change in the law is necessary, after companies like Apple and Google have begun to introduce smartphones that automatically encrypt their data to lock out anyone, even police, from access without the owner’s permission.