SOFYA FREYMAN/PHOTOGRAPHY STAFF Nearly 1,500 people lined up outside Shriver Hall, anticipating former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s virtual discussion on privacy.
Edward Snowden, controversial NSA whistleblower, spoke to a packed Shriver Hall on Wednesday at the Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS). In June 2013, Snowden revealed documents containing secret NSA surveillance practices to journalists, which began a debate on the role of privacy rights in government surveillance.
Appearing via Google Hangouts, Snowden spoke from Moscow with Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University Law School specializing in privacy law, who helped guide discussion.
Throughout the course of his talk as well as the question and answer portion, Snowden spoke extensively on the alleged abuses of surveillance powers by the U.S. government, his role as a whistleblower and how to move forward.
One of the main points of the talk was a discussion on what privacy means. To Snowden, privacy is not the act of hiding things but the right to be able to develop one’s own thoughts and ideas without supervision from an outside power.
“Privacy is a right to be left alone,” he said. “Individuals are born out of privacy.”
Snowden stated that the NSA and the U.S. government have overstepped their bounds and are infringing upon the rights of the American people. He frequently referenced how the government has strictly enumerated powers and is designed to be a system of checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. He then described how that system of checks and balances has failed over time.
After the events of 9/11 and the following War on Terror, the Bush administration created extensive surveillance programs. Per a system of checks and balances, the courts would have the responsibility to verify the validity of the increase in powers — however, Bush’s executive branch claimed that the courts did not have jurisdictions over such matters.
Snowden described how knowledge of the intelligence gathering practices was limited to only eight members of Congress as opposed to its entire body. With this lack of oversight, invasive surveillance programs were developed.
Snowden also stated that the NSA surveillance programs were a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the right against unreasonable search and seizure. He argued that the act of collecting the data of all American citizens was an act of illegal seizure. He described NSA programs as “Orwellian.”
Snowden continuously referred to occasions where officials of the CIA or the NSA would lie during congressional hearings regarding the capabilities of their private data collection strategies. To do this, Snowden prepared screenshots of news articles or short videos of hearings to point out the lies of government officials.
With all these alleged rights infringements, Snowden stated that public scrutiny is needed to decide what the right privacy policies should be.
“The public has the right to decide,” he said, “not officials behind closed doors.”
Snowden also spoke extensively on how he approached disclosing information and what it means to be a whistleblower. He emphasized how he tried to remove his own biases and story from the disclosure of the documents. He stressed that the focus should be on the debate of privacy rights.
“My opinion has no more weight than anyone else’s in this room,” Snowden said. “This is not about me. This is about us. This is about our rights.”
To ensure that the messages of the documents were disclosed with minimum bias and harm, Snowden said he gave the documents to a group of journalists who made it their priority to report on the facts. He specifically spoke to The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. He noted how each journalist gave the U.S. government an opportunity to respond to whatever was being revealed prior to publishing in order to write the most balanced news story.
The reveal of the documents received significant backlash from the U.S. government, which claimed that these documents were harmful to the country’s national security infrastructure. However, he said the programs were of practically no use for national security and that to his knowledge, there has been no security threat as a result of his disclosures.
Snowden also told a story about how he gradually developed his views and his eventual decision to be a whistleblower. He described how numerous family members had worked for the government, and his background was not one of going against the government. As he moved through the ranks of the NSA and gained further knowledge of their practices, however, he thought, “Something’s not quite right.”
He described how the NSA collected more information on Americans in the U.S. than Russians in Russia. He noted how we currently have the greatest capability for surveillance in the history of the world, yet government officials were still claiming how they were in the dark and needed greater measures to gain intelligence. Snowden said he was compelled to act upon the realization that the government’s actions were unconstitutional.
He discussed how whistleblowers of the past often had their lives completely ruined, and that he was ready to break the law for a “just” cause.
During the event, Snowden also spoke of his vision for the future of privacy and his personal life.
Snowden said that no country has a perfect model for privacy protection, but America can raise the standard for liberty around the world for countries like China and Russia to look up to. He warned against setting dangerous precedents in allowing governmental agencies access to personal data. He also spoke of the concept of a global library of known good software that has not been tampered with and is impenetrable to spying. In addition, he proposed better encryption of data that is transmitted between devices.
Snowden said he wishes to leave Russia and is currently in the process of seeking asylum elsewhere. Regarding returning to the United States, Snowden said he is seeking to ensure that he will have a public interest defense and receive a fair trial. The U.S. government has only been able to ensure that he will not be tortured. He now seeks to communicate with others through the use of technology to bring the debate of privacy to the American people.
FAS members described the event as a success, especially in regards to attendance. Shriver Hall has a capacity of 1,320 people and it was filled to the point at which an estimated 180 people had to be turned away.
“I think the event had one of the best attendance Hopkins has ever had, excluding graduation,” Jack Laylin, an executive director of FAS, said. “We’re thrilled that the campus responded so well. Whether they agreed with his views or not, the fact that they showed up is a testament to the power and relevance of Mr. Snowden right now.”
Freshman Marie Nunez noted that while Snowden catered the talk to his own aims, she was still interested in what he had to say.
“I think it was kind of disappointing that he evaded certain questions in a way that seemed to be in service of furthering his own opinions/agenda,” Nunez wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “It was very eye-opening when... he said that laws aren’t always correct and we have to think of what is morally right.”
Sophomore Kwame Alston said that just the presence of Snowden on campus sparked excitement.
“I think it was very informative. I feel like I learned a lot going to it. He is such a stigmatized person and I’m personally on the side that thinks he’s a hero, so being able to see him speak and see that he has hope... was really great to see,” Alston said. “I’m just so excited that the school was able to do this.”