“Privacy isn't about something to hide, it's about something to lose,” Edward Snowden told attendees at the “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?” conference hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
Snowden, whose keynote delivered via satellite from Russia and was punctuated by applause, contended that the technology and apps being used today – even lunch cards on college campuses — especially those that use geolocation are creating “perfect records of private lives being aggregated and stored.”
The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, whose leaks of classified documents cast a harsh spotlight on the NSA's bulk data collection program, PRISM, repeated his assertion that his decision to leak those documents did not rest on a single “key moment.” But, rather, he was swayed by newspaper reports “piece by piece” that the public claims of government “don't match what's going on privately.”
He pointed to Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower, who reported on what he believed to be the agency's illegal surveillance activities. “Rather than reforming, they referred him for prosecution and tried to ruin his life,” Snowden said.
Snowden recently roared (or at least Tweeted his way) back into the public eye after he opened a Twitter account – gaining millions of followers but following only a single handle, the NSA – and as a topic of discussion at the first Democratic presidential primary debate, where nearly all of the candidates said he should be punished on some level for his actions.
Reiterating previous claims that he would return to the U.S. if he could be guaranteed a fair trial, Snowden chastened politicians for not having an open discussion about surveillance and drawing applause by claiming there is a “lack of political courage in the established class.”
“Why are we in situation today where the policies that have the most impact on society; why can't these things be debated in public or in open court until an individual risks his freedoms?” Snowden asked, claiming that transgressions often don't rise to the surface “unless people self-nominate to light themselves on fire – we call whistleblowers.”
But Snowden did appear heartened by the tone and timber of the references to him during the debate, saying that, although most of the candidates wanted to see him prosecuted, it was an, “extraordinary leap forward in terms of the actions of 2013 weren't as important as originally claimed.” He added that the “word traitor wasn't used,” signaling a “change in rhetoric..”
Snowden also took issue with the notion that government, companies and individuals have to strike a balance security and privacy, calling “intentionally misleading” and creating a “false dilemma” that privacy must be given up for security.
He urged the audience, which consisted largely of students, to protect their privacy by using encryption to keep their messages private—“by embracing encryption your can armor you communications; it doesn't solve the problem of metadata but the government can't see what is said, he noted—and the TOR network to ensure anonymity.
“If you have an iPhone, download app called Signal, [and your communications] are unbreakably encrypted,” he said. “When enough people do things like this the net value of mass surveillance drops,” adding that government won't favor a technique that “is not easy and cheap anymore.”
Snowden also charged the students, as he has in the past, to go out and create new technologies and new ways of doing things and “ways to protect human rights.”