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(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

Edward Snowden speaks on privacy and surveillance at McGill University

McGill/News by

Lecture delay and AMUSE picket

A line of students stretched around the Leacock Building to the Milton Gates as Edward Snowden, former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), held an exclusive video conference hosted by [email protected] on the evening of Nov. 3. Snowden was streaming via Google Hangouts from Moscow, his place of residence since he revealed the extent of the NSA’s domestic surveillance operations in 2013; Snowden has been granted asylum by the Russian government. The famous whistleblower shared his thoughts on the importance of privacy as a social issue and how these concerns are still relevant three years after his leak went public. 

The video conference was delayed by an hour. Sources vary, with many staff and attendees of the opinion that the delay was caused by several picketers from the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE)—a claim that AMUSE disputes. AMUSE was on strike from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2 over their collective agreement negotiations with the McGill administration and were picketing the event because AMUSE members would have been working it.

[email protected] volunteers claimed that AMUSE was blocking the entrance to Leacock 132, the large lecture hall where the conference was held. McGill Security did not comment on the situation, simply asking attendees to remain in an orderly line. One security guard, who spoke to The Tribune on the condition of anonymity, claimed that they hoped to remove everyone who was inside the building and then streamline the entrance process.

“We are trying to make order for the people waiting outside,” the McGill security guard said. “Not everyone can go inside, only 600 people. There are 5,000 outside.”

Most attendees were not informed about the cause of the delay and blamed the picketers. Carlo Mole, U3 Arts, was largely in support of AMUSE’s goals, but grew increasingly frustrated with the crushing crowd and the delay to enter Leacock 132.

“I understand that it’s a massive event and they want to showcase their issues, which is why I agree with what they are doing outside, but by blocking the door they’re probably getting students angry at the movement,” Mole said.

AMUSE members at the Leacock 132 entrance claimed that it was McGill security officers who were preventing people from entering. AMUSE Internal Affairs Officer Bradley Powell, who was picketing the event, explained that they were not trying to do a hard picket and only sought to inform attendees of their situation, but allow students to enter the lecture hall if they still chose to.

“We are not blocking this event,” Powell said. “We are trying to explain that if people cross our picket line they should acknowledge that they are crossing a picket line. The labour that was supposed to run this event was our workers, who were on strike. So they have replaced our labour with scab labour in order to make this event run, as you can see it was very poorly organized.”

Eventually, attendees who had been waiting outside marched into the building chanting, “Let us in!” Although they originally resisted the crowd, security soon started leading attendees into the classroom. AMUSE picketers called out to entering attendees, but did not physically interfere. Gabriella Coleman, McGill professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and an organizer of the event, later claimed that the delay was the result of students skipping the line.

“I’m still not clear as to whether it was legal or illegal for [AMUSE] to picket in Leacock,” Coleman said. “I think [AMUSE was part of the blockage] but the bigger part was actually people who had come out of this classroom in a prior class who didn’t want to go to the back of the line.”

Lecture from Edward Snowden, NSA Whistleblower

By 8 p.m., Leacock 132 had filled quickly and security barred the doors to the classroom, opening Leacock 26 as an overflow room. Video connection was established with Edward Snowden, who began by thanking attendees for their patience. In regards to AMUSE, he commended their spirit and reminded students of the importance of having the right to protest and share ideas.

“This is the kind of thing that happens in a democracy,” Snowden said. “We have uncertainties, we have difficulties, we have inconveniences. But, these are not weaknesses, these things are strengths.”

Snowden then began his lecture on privacy issues and mass governmental surveillance. He expressed worry over the fact that dangerous legislation–such as Canada’s Bill C-51 and the United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Bill–continue to pass into law in democracies. He also argued that the failure of courts to provide oversight is a serious concern, as the best safeguard against intelligence agencies are guarantees that prosecutors will conduct case-by-case reviews of their operations.

“Governments have not asked for the permission of the public to engage in these kinds of operations,” Snowden said. “Instead, they deploy these kinds of capabilities in secret, even when they knew these programs were unlawful. Courts were unwilling to permit legal challenges against the activities of these spy agencies because they said there was speculation, because [intelligence agencies] can say, ‘You can’t prove you’re spying because it’s classified.’”

Snowden spoke of how a combination of fear-mongering and technological advances gave intelligence communities the ability to get away with remotely monitoring essentially any individual.

“Traditionally, the works of intelligence services, surveillance agencies, and police investigations, have always been particularly and specifically targeted towards individuals who had probable cause,” Snowden said. “Now, surveillance technologies have outpaced democratic controls [and] for the first time in human history, it is both technologically and financially feasible for governments to track and survey complete records of all of our lives.”

Intelligence is usually split into ‘content,’ which are the actual messages sent, and ‘metadata,’ which are the characteristics of the messages, such as when or where they were sent. While it is feasible for members of the public to encrypt the content of their communications, they do not control the metadata that they produce. Metadata does not belong to an individual and Snowden expressed concern over social media and telecom corporations that control their users’ metadata.

“The government holds that you don’t actually own records of your activities, you only have a private interest in actually what you say,” Snowden said. “When you have enough metadata, you don’t need the content. Metadata is a proxy for content because machines can analyze it in a way content can’t. Metadata creates perfect records of private lives.”

In response to a question about what conditions could justify total surveillance, Snowden replied that invasion of privacy includes moral judgements, not just purely utilitarian considerations. He also reminded the audience that data gathered through mass surveillance has historically never made a concrete difference in investigations.

“This is very similar to arguing, ‘What if torture were effective, what if extra-judicial murder were effective, we’re talking about assassinations here, what if slavery was a wonderful economic program?’” Snowden said. “It wouldn’t make it right. It’s not the question of can this thing be justified in terms of efficacy, it’s, ‘Do we want to live in a world without human rights?’”

Snowden argued that the ability to behave as private individuals is analogous to the ability to own private possessions and that it is the foundation of other rights and freedoms.

“When somebody says, ‘I don’t care about privacy because I’ve got nothing to hide,’ that’s like saying ‘I don’t care about free speech because I have got nothing to say,’” Snowden said. “Privacy is about the ability to have something for yourself, whether it’s a home, whether it’s a car, whether it’s a pencil. Whether it is an idea, whether it is a belief.”

Robert Tibbo, Mr. Snowden’s Lawyer

McGill graduate Robert Tibbo practices law in China and represented Edward Snowden, helping him hide from U.S. law enforcement in Hong Kong in June 2013. He normally assists refugee claimants.

Earlier this year it was revealed that Montreal police had gathered metadata from  La Presse journalist Patrick Lagace’s phone. The legal warrant to do so has since been overruled; Lagace hypothesizes that he was tracked in the hopes that he would lead the police to his confidential source, who was leaking information to the press. During the interview, Snowden commented on the importance of this issue, as he himself had relied on the press to reveal NSA documents. Tibbo commended the public’s response, but worried that future whistleblowers may be discouraged from approaching the media.

“People of Montreal and Quebec were put on notice by Mr. Snowden's revelations in 2013 and have clearly taken a stance that the Quebec police conduct is outrageous,” Tibbo said. “What the Quebec Magistrate and police did was to strike a devastating impact at the core foundation of journalism, violating the sanctity of trust and confidentiality between journalists and their sources.”

Tibbo currently works to represent and provide for the Hong Kong Four (HK4), the four refugees who helped Tibbo hide Snowden when he was underground in Hong Kong.

“The Hong Kong government has left the HK4 destitute, refusing to provide them with sufficient food, transport money, rent, utilities, food, clothing, etcetera,” said Tibbo. “I hope that people will continue to donate to these extraordinary people who, with so little, selflessly gave so much to protect Mr. Snowden.”

This article was last updated on Nov. 4, 2016. 

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