Former NSA employee talks surveillance, privacy and US elections
It was crowded at McGill University on Wednesday night, with thousands of people waiting outside the Leacock building to attend the Edward Snowden video conference.
Although the conference was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., it was delayed due to a protest by the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE), whose 1,500 members are on strike for better working conditions, from wage increases to employment stability. They formed a picket line in front of the huge crowd of people waiting outside, which prevented people from entering the building of the university. Eventually, people found their way inside, pushing each other through the picket line while screaming “Let us in!”
Due to the amount of people who turned up to hear Snowden speak, organizers had to set up a second room where people could watch a livestream version of the event. The conference began around 8 p.m.
Gabriella Coleman, an academic and author whose work focuses on hacker culture and online activism, gave the introduction to Snowden’s talk. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, is best known for leaking documents in 2013 about NSA surveillance activities.
Snowden, who’s currently in Moscow, Russia, appeared on a large screen at the front of the auditorium. He received a round of applause from the public as soon as he appeared.
He started the conference by saying he did not want the audience to hold a grudge against the AMUSE protesters, since they were practicing democracy.
Snowden’s main topics of the night were surveillance and privacy.
“We are all being watched, and it doesn’t matter if we do something wrong or right,” he said. With the rise of the Internet, computers and shared networks, he added, security and privacy is at risk. He explained prior to the digital age, surveillance was an expensive tool and it would take a large group of people to catch one individual. Nowadays, however, it is “financially and technologically possible for one person to watch over a full group of people without them knowing,” he said.
Snowden questioned the legitimacy of democracy when a government, which is elected by the public and is accountable to the public, does not need permission from the public to invade their privacy.
Snowden also weighed in on the recent revelation that Montreal police have been spying on journalists, including La Presse’s Patrick Lagacé. La Presse reported Monday, Oct. 31, that at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Lagacé’s iPhone this year at the request of the police special investigations unit. These warrants were used to track the journalist’s whereabouts using the GPS chip in his iPhone. The goal was to track his sources.
He described the controversy as a “non-radical attack on freedom.”
“The government has built in so many loops in the law, so if the police don’t like a journalist, it’s great for them because he can go to a justice of the peace and this judge will let them into this guy’s phone.”
Snowden said there is a lack of public understanding about how government organizations operate, which is why, in 2013, he felt it would be of the public’s interest for him to reveal the realities of the NSA’s operations.
After his 15-minute talk, there was a question period. An attendee of the conference asked how we can ensure that security agencies go back to following the law in a reasonable way. Snowden’s answer: we can’t. He said the only way we possibly could get those agencies back on track with the law would be to appoint a judicial body that is mandated to perform a case by case review of these intelligence agencies’ use of powers to ensure that no illegalities occurred.
Snowden was asked to discuss the upcoming elections in the United States. He said if someone has to ask someone else who they’re voting for, they are not appreciating the value of their own opinion. “Don’t look to others to tell you who to vote for, look to you—read, listen to the conversation.” He also expressed his disappointment in the campaign’s focus on the candidates’ personalities rather than on the constitution. “We all need to recognize [and] be extremely cautious about putting all of our hopes in the candidates,” he said. “Well, you may appreciate one candidate above the other… we cannot rely on others to do the things that we must do for ourselves. Ultimately, if you want to build a better country, you’re going to have to build it yourself.”
When asked if mass surveillance is acceptable, Snowden explained that there is a lot of evidence suggesting that it is not very effective when it comes to terrorism. For example, in the wake of Snowden’s release of NSA’s surveillance practices, there was an independent review which concluded that the NSA’s phone data program was illegal and should end.
“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” the report concluded.
“But what if it had made a difference?” Snowden asked. “It still wouldn’t have made it right,” he said. “We have human rights for a reason, and we protect them. Do we want to live in a world without them?”
Snowden was then asked about students and our generation’s role in this complex fight for privacy and freedom of speech. “Your generation is doing what people aren’t doing,” he said, giving the example of the very protest that had delayed the conference. He said he believes the new generation has to fight for privacy. “Privacy is not having something to hide—it’s about something to protect,” he said. “Saying you don’t care because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
He said our generation has the ability to make a change when it comes to maintaining privacy. “You have the obligation and the rights to change the game, it is the decision of your generation,” he said. “It is not my decision, not the government’s decision but your generation’s decision.”
“Hope to see you all next year in person,” Snowden concluded.