Edward Snowden, former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), spoke remotely via Google Hangouts at McGill University on Wednesday, Nov. 2.
Snowden’s notoriety has not waned since his leak of some 10,000 classified NSA files in 2013.
Snowden began with a few words about surveillance issues in Montreal. In a recent scandal, Patrick Lagacé, a columnist for Montreal’s French language newspaper La Presse, uncovered that police had issued “at least 24 surveillance warrants” on his iPhone this year.
The pace of government surveillance has increased dramatically worldwide thanks to technological advancements that have helped governments spy on their citizens. Highly trained teams of intelligence personnel have been outmatched and replaced in the modern era of mass information.
In traditional, James Bond-esque surveillance, spies could physically follow a target, but could never be within earshot for fear of exposure. They jotted down the dates and times when an individual left their home, whom they met with, and their locations during the day. But traditional spying methods were incredibly expensive and labourious. In order to access an individual’s metadata—that is, information surrounding a message or phone call, including dates, times, and locations—governments had to spend an incredible amount of money on a team of intelligence personnel.
Without the historical limitations of time and money, government surveillance has become a question of, ‘why not?’
Snowden highlighted the paradigm shift where government officials are no longer held accountable by the citizens they serve.
“Private citizens and public officials have morphed into this brave new world of public citizens and private officials,” Snowden said.
The checks and balances that have traditionally kept democracies free and private have now been outpaced.
In his talk, Snowden also discussed practical applications of the surveillance state.
“First of all, we have to begin to encrypt our data,” Snowden said.
There are a number of companies that offer encryption services. Microsoft Outlook, the platform that McGill uses, has a built-in tool to encrypt all outgoing emails. There are also ciphers that encrypt a message using a “key” that can be a phrase from books, movies, or just random strings of letters.
But merely protecting the raw data is not enough. According to Snowden, the metadata must also be protected. To prevent the government from accessing this kind of data is much more difficult than protecting the raw content. Metadata is not owned by the sender of a message, but rather by the company that provides the service, such as Google or Facebook—a detail that the NSA’s PRISM program exploited.
Part of the reason Snowden came forward was to expose the American government’s surveillance programs, such as PRISM, and to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.
The PRISM program was a clandestine protocol of the NSA to collect and store internet communications and metadata from U.S. internet and telecommunications companies. Snowden’s document leak exposed the extent of the PRISM program’s access to private citizens’ metadata.
In Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., there are laws that prevent the government from accessing the private information of their citizens. The PRISM program utilizes a loophole where the information of ordinary citizens can be collected from company databases that are based offshore.
Even if correspondents are in the same country, their data could jump to another continent and back without their knowledge. The U.S. government can then collect this information and store it in their database.
Snowden also leaked documents describing programs targeted at U.S. allies in Europe, including tapping into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal line, as well as bugging the European Union’s office in New York, and spying on European non-governmental organizations.
The U.S. government addressed the consequences of Snowden’s leaks in several internal reports. In 2015, Vice News obtained some 100 pages of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) internal reports about the ramifications of the Snowden files. According to Vice, the reason that the that they were aware of the report in the first place was due to clandestine government dealings to smear Snowden’s image.
“The DIA's report had been unknown until the White House secretly authorized the declassification of select portions of it so two Republican lawmakers could undercut the media narrative painting Snowden as a heroic whistleblower," Jason Leopold wrote for Vice News in 2015.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Vice sued the government for access to the reports.
The files were eventually handed over, though nearly every page of the report was redacted to the point where the only writing on the pages were the titles and some subheadings.
With respect to his own personal fallout, Snowden said that, thanks to previous whistleblowers, he knew what could happen to him.
Snowden said he learned from former U.S. whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake. Because of their actions, he knew more of what to expect in terms of persecution and criminal convictions.
“I knew that if I got caught the government would use the Espionage Act against me,” Snowden said. “It’s one of the few laws that silences your story in court, it is designed that way.”
When asked why he came forward, Snowden gave his usual wry smile.
“We have a right to know,” he replied.
Recently, there have been campaigns petitioning the American government to allow Snowden to return to the U.S. without facing prosecution, but this outcome does not look likely.
“I can’t pardon somebody who hasn’t gone before a court and presented themselves, so that’s not something I would comment on at this point,” U.S. President Barack Obama told the German newspaper Der Spiegel on Nov. 18.
Moreover, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo, said that he would like to see Snowden executed.
Despite the international attention and media frenzy, Snowden insisted that people should look at the critical issues he brought to light instead of focusing on him as an individual.
“I am the least important part of the story,” he said.
Nevertheless, his actions and his message have continued to reverberate around the world. Snowden’s disclosures gave citizens a glimpse into the inner workings of their governments. His revelations have made many realize that Big Brother is not merely a construct of English prose, but is very, very real.
As a rhetorical target of American officials, Snowden, exiled by the U.S. and living under temporary asylum in Moscow, Russia, closed on an optimistic note.
“Hopefully next year I’ll be able to see you in person,” Snowden said amidst a standing ovation.