Edward Snowden’s face appeared in full screen Tuesday night, speaking to audiences at the universities of Winnipeg, Lethbridge and Brandon, using the same technology threatening our rights to privacy.
His address, part of the Axworthy Distinguished Lecture Series, was a call to action for Canadians who may be too complacent about governments’ increased ability to perform surveillance on their citizens.
For those of a certain age, Snowden brings to mind Salman Rushdie, the novelist forced to go into police protection in 1988 after his novel The Satanic Verses was released. Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. It was the classic example of the powerful determining who has the right to speak and who does not.
And this, too, is the case for Snowden. The 33-year-old American citizen is a former intelligence community officer and whistleblower who provided documents that detailed the role the National Security Agency was playing in the secret mass surveillance programs of ordinary American citizens. He is now wanted in the U.S. on charges of espionage.
Some say he is a traitor. Some say he is a crusader. Carlos Colorado, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s event and a professor at the University of Winnipeg, says Snowden and Rushdie both advocated against the powerful and dealt with the consequences. Both paid an enormous price.
It was an interesting coincidence that Snowden’s address came on the same day that U.S. President Donald Trump fired the FBI director investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 American presidential election campaign, including the leaked emails of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It was also the same day a journalist was arrested for asking U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under the Republican bill to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.
Snowden condemned the firing of James Comey, calling it alarming and part of a shift away from ensuring there are checks and balances to control the power of government. And Canada is not immune. On Tuesday, Snowden also condemned the police involvement in the surveillance of journalists, such as La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé, who found out that Montreal police were monitoring his iPhone in 2016 to determine who he was talking to.
It’s time we understood just how Snowden is an important figure for this moment in time, as our growing addiction to smartphones jeopardizes our right to privacy. The government’s ability to indiscriminately gather information about private citizens’ activities — a bulk collection — has been made easier and cheaper with new technology, meaning we are all at risk of having our private lives watched by those in power.
For those who say it doesn’t affect them, Snowden responded: "Saying things such as ‘I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide’ is no different than saying, ‘I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say.’ " No one knows when the tide will change and when what was previously viewed as acceptable comment might become fodder for an arrest warrant.
Snowden pointed to these surveillance laws, in an increasingly nervous world, as indicative of government control. He said we are "living in a world of terror, which means that rights become vulnerable." But the best response is to "respond by setting values that differentiate us from the bad." When American and Canadian governments step over privacy rights, are we really different from countries such as China or Russia? Or, for that matter, from fundamentalist Muslims pushing to limit speech and control citizens?
As Snowden’s talk revealed, this indiscriminate use of our information hasn’t made the world safer. In fact, there have been no lives saved by the mass collection of personal data. Information obtained by police on an individual’s online activity and phone calls has come to light only after the fact, when a security breach has occurred and police are left to piece together what happened.
"Rights aren’t needed in easy cases," he said on Tuesday. "But they are needed in the hard ones."
Snowden, like Rushdie before him, is standing up and holding the powerful to account. Canadians should take up Snowden’s call to action to press governments to respect the rule of the law and our privacy before we’re all under siege. Otherwise, Snowden said, we may become "safe, but not free," and he added that a "safe life with no rights is like living in prison."
Shannon Sampert is the former perspectives and politics editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is currently the editor-in-chief and director of EvidenceNetwork.ca at the University of Winnipeg. Her views are her own.
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