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A suitcase full of secrets: Evan Light

An exhibition and a book are bringing the Snowden files back to Berlin. As part of the Signals (Sep 12-26, Diamondpaper), American surveillance researcher Light presents his “Snowden Archive-in-a-Box” in a hands-on workshop (Sep 13).

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Light’s suitcase contains all the Snowden files leaked so far on a 32GB memory card.

An exhibition and a book are bringing the Snowden files back to Berlin. Evan Light will be there with a suitcase full of secrets…

As part of the Signals exhibition organised by the Berliner Gazette, the American surveillance researcher will present his “Snowden Archive-in-a-Box” in a hands-on workshop (Sep 13). An assistant professor of communications at York University in Toronto and a Canadian since 1995, Light answered our questions about the contents of his mysterious case.

You’re bringing a retro spy briefcase to Berlin. What’s in it?

It contains two credit-card-sized $50 RaspberryPi mini-computers. One functions as a stand-alone wi-fi network and web server. When you connect yourself to the PSA network and browse any website, you are automatically redirected to the web server in the suitcase, which contains all the Snowden leaks that have been published so far. The second RaspberryPi is configured as a wi-fi sniffer and plays back, on an LCD screen, the digital conversations that occur between users’ devices and the archive server.

What prompted the idea?

In 2014, I watched the launch of the internet-based Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive by the University of Toronto. I emailed Andrew Clement, the instigator of the project, and proposed building an offline one so that people could use the archive securely, without the threat of mass surveillance. The Snowden Archive-in-a-Box is an exact replica of the online one, and we synchronise them regularly.

So to be clear, you’re offering people a chance to browse the Snowden files in all anonymity with their own laptop or smartphone, off a portable server contained in that spy suitcase. Why should we? Don’t we know what’s there already?

We largely know what we’ve been told by a fairly limited number of journalists who have worked with a fairly limited number of technical experts. The Snowden leaks have exposed the most extensive system of state mass surveillance ever, and everybody should be interested. The archive currently houses around 1000 documents, many of which can be analysed from a variety of perspectives. There seems to have been more written on the act of leaking than about the contents of the documents themselves.

Why the briefcase gimmick? Is this some form of “artivism”?

Oddly enough, the art side has been pretty coincidental. An EU-funded travelling installation project called Performigrations had recently done a residency at my lab. So I came into work one day to find 18 suitcases my then-boss had gotten at secondhand shops. Among them was this spy suitcase, a black leather flight case from perhaps the 1960s… So, I would say that it’s functional artwork that might help fill a void in surveillance education. Most people don’t understand the very public nature of online communication, how your conversations can be seen, collected, parsed…

I read that the archive all fits on a 32-gigabyte memory card. It shows how few docs have been released so far… How many do you have, exactly?

Amazingly, the files themselves take up less than one gig. Our archive has 1182 documents and will be updated with a few more in the coming weeks. Supposedly Snowden passed on an estimated 1.5 million documents, so we’re missing most of them.

That would be less than 0.1 percent of the whole Snowden cache! Do we even know where the rest of the documents are?

It’s my understanding that Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept maintains possession of the leaked documents. I’ve attempted to contact him on a few occasions, but have never received a reply. I think it’s irresponsible and disrespectful that he and The Intercept have become the de facto gatekeepers. You can’t in all honesty claim to hold the state accountable and press for state transparency if you’re not even willing to have a conversation concerning these documents. Conspiracy theories grow in the vacuum Glenn Greenwald has left us with.

Isn’t the real challenge now to actually get access to the whole Snowden “bounty”?

Yep. It’s getting to the point where we’re basically waiting for the leak-leak.

Four years down the road, have things improved? Are citizens more aware, are governments committed to better behaviour?

Nothing has improved. The UK passed an abhorrent mass surveillance bill last year, and Canada’s is not much better. Intelligence agencies throughout the world are still largely unaccountable. Until governments begin to put serious political and financial capital into safeguarding our privacy, this will remain the case.

You’ve set up more than one copy of the portable archive, and even recommend that people create their own to ensure secure access. Can you give us the instructions?

Yes, it’s quite easy! Directions are under snowdenarchive.cjfe.org. To get the most recent image, readers can email me at [email protected] and look up my PGP key. We’re also working on moving the archive to a new back-end, which should be ready in the coming months.

So what’s it like to travel the world with a suitcase full of leaked government documents?

On my way to the UK in summer 2015, I switched planes at the Charles de Gaulle airport in France. The security guy said to put all computers through the X-ray machine. I told him what I had, he asked me to take it out and was very impressed: “Wow, that’s pretty cool! Did you make it with plans off the internet?” “No, I designed it myself.” “Very cool… have a nice flight!”