American whistleblower Edward Snowden, wanted in the United States for leaking classified National Security Agency information in 2013, emphasized the importance of privacy and downplayed the national security risks of his document leak in a virtual interview from his asylum in Moscow, Russia in Lohrfink Auditorium on Thursday.
During the interview, which was sponsored by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund and lasted approximately 75 minutes, Snowden fielded questions from moderator on the circumstances of his asylum, the FBI-Apple controversy surrounding iPhone encryption, his thoughts on accusations that he endangered national security and the long-term considerations about personal privacy and consumer protection.
Snowden, a former CIA agent who released classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewan MacAskill, was charged with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of theft of government property by the U.S. Department of Justice. He was granted asylum in Russia in summer 2013, and he has lived in an undisclosed location in Russia since.
Professor Alvaro Bedoya of the Georgetown University Law Center conducted the interview, which was attended by approximately 400 students.
The start of the interview was delayed by 45 minutes due to technical issues surrounding Snowden’s Google Hangout account and Internet connection, according to Lecture Fund Executive Chair Helen Brosnan (COL ’16).
“A representative with Snowden’s team told us that, ‘the call was being blocked in that region [where Snowden was located],’” Brosnan said.
Brosnan said while there was no evidence presented of outside interference to cause the blocked call, she acknowledged that the problems were an unprecedented obstacle in Snowden’s experience of doing Google Hangout lectures.
Throughout the interview, Snowden stressed the importance of privacy, which he contended is an essential part of human development.
“Privacy is the right to the self. And how does that happen? That happens by trying things and failing. And then trying again and succeeding,” Snowden said. “But when you’re making mistakes under observation, under prejudice, it’s quite dangerous to have a permanent record of every mistake you’ve ever made.”
Snowden said the right to privacy is especially important for political and racial minority groups, as there is a fundamental inequality in the types of people the government chooses to surveil.
“Because just like we have an unequal distribution of resources, just like we have an unequal distribution of debts, we have a foolish and unequal application of surveillance techniques,” Snowden said.
Snowden said he was particularly concerned by the FBI’s most recent attempts to force Apple to unlock the phone of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.
“Does the government deputize every private structure — whether it’s you, whether it’s a university, whether it’s a corporation — to perform surveillance on their behalf?” Snowden said. “There is no precedent for doing that in this creative way, in which the government compels you to create a new capability for surveillance.”
Snowden said the audience should consider the ramifications of corporate data collection on the privacy of private consumers.
“If the CEO of Google wanted to look at your email box today, just because, if they wanted to see everything that you’ve ever typed in a Google search box, what could you do about it?” Snowden said. “Same thing for Facebook. Same for Verizon. Same for AT&T.”
Snowden downplayed suggestions that his actions compromised national security. According to Snowden, the responsibility lies with the news outlets who published his information.
“I never published a single story. They all went through independent journalism outlets: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian. The most trusted names in print media. And they were charged with making an independent assessment of the public interest for any given story prior to publishing,” Snowden said.
Professor Bedoya pressed Snowden on his suggestion that independent journalists, rather than his own data leaks, compromised national security.
“You can’t be saying that there is a zero national security cost to what you did, right? That’s not what you’re saying,” Bedoya said.
Snowden said there is no evidence his leaks have damaged national security.
“I’m saying the risk exists,” Snowden said. “But evidence of harm does not yet exist when we’re sitting here in 2016.”
Snowden said he would have come forward sooner if he were to leak the documents again. Snowden came forward in June 2013, after first leaking the documents a month earlier.
Mitali Mathur (SFS ’19) said Snowden’s responses showed his commitment to privacy.
“I think the biggest thing that stuck out to me was when the professor asked what he would do differently and he said, ‘I would have come forward sooner.’ I thought that really showed what he believed in and why he thought that was valuable,” Mathur said.
Christina Nangy (GRD ’16) said Snowden’s role in the international discussion around surveillance and privacy makes him role model to many millennials, which lent his talk particular relevance.
“A lot of us are millennials or early post-millennial youth, and a lot of us see him as a hero. So I was really interested in hearing what he had to say,” Nangy said.
Tina Cheesman (SFS ’19) said she was impressed by the straightforward nature of Snowden’s answers.
“I think Snowden made a number of really great points, from addressing how his actions affected himself and others to the ways in which what he started isn’t completely finished yet. He addressed issues bluntly and offered clear examples to illustrate his points,” she said.
Hoya Staff Writer Christian Paz contributed reporting.
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