Snowden Takes on Democracy, Surveillance in Online Address

Snowden Takes on Democracy, Surveillance in Online AddressSnowden Takes on Democracy, Surveillance in Online Address

Via streaming video, the NSA whistleblower’s discussion with a journalist touched on national security, surveillance and their recent tumultuous years. Speaking from an undisclosed location in Russia, American whistleblower Edward Snowden addressed a Toronto high school as a keynote speaker Monday night.

Speaking through a Google Hangout alongside journalist Glenn Greenwald, the keynote speech at the Upper Canada College was the opening event of the private school’s World Affairs Conference, an annual, student-run conference, The Star wrote.

The former NSA contractor pointed to the Boston Marathon bombing that took place in 2013, saying that once it had occurred, the agency realized that it already had data on the suspects and that they had been previously flagged. Nonetheless, the NSA failed to predict, detect, or stop their plot.

“The problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you understand nothing,” Snowden said.

His comments came on the heels of a new report revealing that Canada has been running a global surveillance program of its own, one that has operated in countries such as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Codenamed “Levitation,” the program allows government agents to archive internet activity – including which files are uploaded and downloaded – as they try to uncover terrorists.

The topic of Canada’s newly proposed anti-terror law also came up, since the bill would allow police to detain terror ‘suspects’ for up to a week, make it easier for law enforcement to arrest suspects, and criminalize the promotion of terrorism, among other things. Snowden told Canadians they should consider the contents of the law seriously. “Once we let these powers get rolling, it’s very difficult to stop,” he said.

“We were no longer looking for bad guys, we were no longer looking for terrorists,” he said of the mass surveillance programs that target entire populations, calling them a “fundamental change in the balance of power between citizen and state.”

  Gov’t Temptation

Snowden told students that without oversight, governments cannot resist the temptation to use the data which they have collected for “new and novel purposes.” He added that this kind of surveillance is inherently dangerous to democracy and needs to be debated in public. “Democracy is about participation. We take risks. We dare,” he said. “Sometimes we do right and sometimes we do wrong, even if we intended to do right.” He suggested that expressing disagreement with the government is the right course of action when its behavior is perceived as “morally unjustifiable.”

Snowden defended disclosing classified NSA documents to journalists like Greenwald, noting that independent investigators have not been able to detail a single instance in which the revelations have harmed American security.

He acknowledged that the NSA plays a vital role for the US, and that surveillance is used all over the world to investigate serious crime, but insisted that its role should be proportional to its need.

Both Greenwald and Snowden argued that residents of Canada, the UK and US are more likely to die from car accidents, disease, or slipping in the bathtub than from being a victim of a terror attack, yet the fear of terror is exploited by those in power to get people to allow and support repressive policies.

The renowned whistleblower also took time to reflect on the value of what he has done, and mentioned several times that he has no regrets. Asked if he would do the same thing again, in another country, Snowden said, “Of course, because practice makes perfect. It doesn’t matter which nation does it. Wrong is wrong.”

  Mother Teresa or Hitler

Snowden fled to Hong Kong and later Russia after releasing documents that exposed widespread collection of citizens’ phone and internet metadata by US and other intelligence agencies. Some have praised Snowden for exposing the breadth of government spying. Others feel his actions are treasonous.

Snowden told students that sometimes media coverage has focused too heavily on himself and not enough on the issues raised by the revelations of mass data collection.

“Whether or not I’m Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, that has bearing no whatsoever on the content of the reporting,” he said.

Conor Healy, the student who arranged to have Snowden speak, said the decision prompted a fierce debate at his school.

“Our goal is to expose the student delegates to issues that are globally significant to them,” Healy said Monday in an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. “Snowden is undoubtedly one of the foremost perspectives on one side of an essential debate about our relationship with the government as it relates to personal privacy.”