Banter With the Beast

Steve Wozniak: Snowden ‘Is a Hero Because This Came From His Heart’

The Apple co-founder tells Lloyd Grove why he supports the NSA leaker—and laments our loss of privacy.


Computer whiz Steve Wozniak is more than a little distressed that the technology he helped develop nearly four decades ago is being used on a massive scale to invade people’s privacy.

He’s especially troubled by the secret intrusions into the private emails of American citizens by the National Security Agency—secret, that is, until the recent detailed revelations of the NSA’s Prism program of electronic surveillance by a 29-year-old NSA contractor turned fugitive named Edward Snowden.

“I think he’s a hero,” said the 62-year-old Wozniak, who co-founded Apple Computer with Steve Jobs and invented the Apple I and Apple II personal computers that launched a technological revolution. “He’s a hero to my beliefs about how the Constitution should work. I don’t think the NSA has done one thing valuable for us, in this whole ‘Prism’ regard, that couldn’t have been done by following the Constitution and doing it the old way.”

Sitting down with me on Tuesday at the Ford Motor Co. campus in Dearborn, Michigan, during the “Go Further With Ford” 2013 Trend Conference, Wozniak added: “I don’t think terrorism is war. I think terrorism is a crime. And by using the word ‘war’ we’ve managed to use all these weird ways to say the Constitution doesn’t apply in the case of a war. And I think Edward Snowden is a hero because this came from his heart. And I really believe he was giving up his whole life because he just felt so deeply about honesty, about spying on Americans, and he wanted to tell us.”

Snowden, a former CIA employee who faces felony charges of espionage and theft of government property after admitting he leaked classified material to Glenn Greenwald of Britain’s The Guardian, was reportedly trying to evade extradition and waiting in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for political asylum from Ecuador or some other sympathetic country. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, acknowledged Snowden’s presence in Moscow on Tuesday but vowed not to extradite him to the United States.

While Wozniak conceded that the NSA has a legitimate mission “to be looking out for our security, there were restrictions [on clandestine surveillance] that were very good,” he told me. “The way I was brought up, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution means you have to have two people testify that this person is likely doing something very wrong just to get a warrant and a court order from a normal court.”

Referring to the secret proceedings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reportedly granted comprehensive warrants for the NSA’s Prism activities, “Why do you set up a little private court? That’s like saying, ‘I need a warrant and I’m going to give one to myself.’ What it leads to is judge, jury, and executioner. It’s the same thing as lynch mobs.”

When Wozniak and Jobs started Apple Computer in 1976, the Internet was in its infancy, unknown to the general public and not a factor in everyday life. But today the World Wide Web presents a serious threat to personal privacy, Wozniak said.

“Every time you set up an account, just because you want to purchase something, you have to click ‘OK’ and ‘I agree to this,’ ” Wozniak said. “Who has the time to read all the legalese terms and who has the ability to understand them? All I know, from a life of having been involved in a lot of contracts, is when the other side breaks the contract and you have no say, it’s all written totally in their favor and you’ve given away everything.”

Wozniak had just participated in a panel discussion titled “Disrupting the Drive,” which focused on the development of automobiles, at Ford and other carmakers, that will be able to monitor a driver’s heart rate and blood-sugar level, choose his favorite music and even set his alarm clock for work—sucking personal information from “the cloud,” the popular term for the network of a huge number of connected computers that form the Web. The loss of privacy is unavoidable.

“We don’t have a lot of choice right now,” Wozniak said, “because the whole world has gone to pretty much operating on the cloud, where huge amounts of information are stored and huge amounts of processing ability to interrelate all different types of things.”

When Wozniak built the first Apple computers, “they were totally local, and they were totally different from all these shared-network machines,” he said. “Now we’re all on the Internet. The funny thing is, you had to mail a letter in an envelope and you had legal guarantees, except in the case of court orders and warrants, that it couldn’t be opened on the way there. It was sealed. And now we don’t have any guarantee about email anymore.

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“When the Internet first came, I thought it was just the beacon of freedom. People could communicate with anyone, anywhere, and nobody could stop it ... Now it turns out that every single thing we send as email counts as publicly viewable and it’s totally open and exposed, and can be taken for whatever reason. That wasn’t supposed to be. That wasn’t where we thought the Internet was going to go. We thought it was going to elevate the really average people over huge, big, controlling governments and protect us from tyrants.”

Instead, “it allows the tyrants to get tighter control over more and more of our lives,” Wozniak lamented.

He suggested the two top technology companies, Microsoft and Apple, missed an opportunity by not incorporating PGP (for “pretty good privacy”) Encryption software into their products. “If two companies, Microsoft and Apple, had built in PGP Encryption,” Wozniak said, “every email would have been encrypted and uncrackable.”

A wealthy philanthropist, technology evangelist, and frequent conference participant since leaving Apple for good in 1987, Wozniak was no longer personally close to Jobs when the latter died of cancer in 2011. But he praised his irascible former partner as “an incredible asset not only to the company, but to the world.”

Will Tim Cook, Jobs’s successor as chief executive, be able to continue Apple’s record of innovation?

“I think it’s way too early to decide,” Wozniak told me, “because Steve Jobs’s reputation largely comes from being this great visionary—and that largely comes from products that came out of Apple. Really incredible products don’t come every year. So wait until we see if Apple has a few dogs that come out, and then you can start saying that something’s missing.”