Speaking from an undisclosed location in Russia, American whistleblower Edward Snowden warned Toronto high school students to be wary of the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.
“The problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you understand nothing,” he said via a Google Hangout connection on Monday evening.
The Harper bill to increase the power of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service “fundamentally changes the balance of power between the citizen and the state.”
Speaking alongside journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden delivered the keynote speech at the Upper Canada College to open the private school’s World Affairs Conference, an annual, student-run conference.
Their talk touched on many of the aspects that have become synonymous with Snowden ’s leaks from the American National Security Agency — surveillance, national security and democracy — including insight into last week’s revelation that CSEC collected massive amounts of data on file uploads in Canada.
“Is it really possible for governments to do their jobs, in finding terrorist plots,” Greenwald said. “Or are they just collecting so much information on so many people — including people who have done nothing wrong — that they become incapable of finding what they say they’re looking for?”
Snowden also touched on some aspects of his life since he became internationally wanted, and warrants were issued for his arrest by his government.
“I actually work more now than I ever did before. I work seven days a week, practically,” Snowden said. “It’s now about 4:30 in the morning, I guess, and I haven’t been to sleep yet. But it’s tremendously satisfying. I’m able to have so much impact.”
Snowden said he works with NGOs and civil-liberties groups around the world and consults with international computer science and security experts. He also often gives talks like this one, including a debate at Harvard.
He also took time to praise the questions directed to him by students. Faced with a question on the rise of China in a global context, he remarked, “First of all, wow. High school students? These are better questions than I get from members of Parliament.”
The comment garnered uproarious applause by the more than 900 students in attendance.
The event also featured an overflow room, populated by an additional 400 members of the community, and was live-streamed to an estimated 10,000 viewers.
Students commented several times on the controversial nature of Snowden and Greenwald’s appearance, but Snowden cautioned against creating narratives directed at him as an individual.
“Regardless of how bad a guy I am, ultimately the revelation of warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance on a global scale is something that we the people deserve to know,” he said. “And if the government will not tell us, it falls to journalists ... to find and publish the information that informs our voting habits.”
Snowden also commended the journalists he worked with but criticized the mass media for focusing on him and creating narratives of “hero or traitor.”
Greenwald also touched on the issue of Snowden’s divisive nature, comparing him to Daniel Ellsberg, the man responsible for leaking the pentagon papers, who has become an outspoken advocate for Snowden’s leaks.
The internationally 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, he said, “Of course, because practice makes perfect.
“It doesn’t matter which nation does it. Wrong is wrong.”
- With files from Canadian Press