Originally appeared in the Queen’s Journal on November 13th, 2015.
“I am just a citizen. I was the mechanism of disclosure. It’s not up to me to say what the future should be — it’s up to you,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told a packed house in Grant Hall.
Snowden — a polarizing figure globally — was invited as the keynote speaker for Queen’s Model United Nations Invitational (QMUNi) for the Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA).
As the talk commenced at 6:30 p.m., Snowden was met with applause.
The buzz surrounding Snowden’s Google Hangout talk on Thursday at Grant Hall started early, as crowds started lined up to enter the Grant Hall. The building quickly hit capacity.
Snowden began with a discussion of his motivations to disclose countless NSA confidential documents. He told the audience that he once believed wholeheartedly that mass surveillance was for the public good.
He came from a “federal family”, he said, with relations to both politics and military. He said once he reached the peak of his career in government intelligence — when he received the highest security clearance — he saw the depth of the problem.
After that realization came the release of classified documents to journalists in 2013, his defection from the NSA and his indefinite stay in Russia.
“Progress often begins as an outright challenge to the law. Progress in many cases is illegal,” he said.
However, he has made himself into more than just a whistleblower. Snowden has continued to push for and encourage discussion about mass surveillance.
“Justice has to be seen to be done,” he said.
“I don’t live in Russia, I live on the Internet,” he said at another point during the talk.
When asked about Bill C-51 — the controversial terror bill in Canada — Snowden said “terrorism is often the public justification, but it’s not the actual motivation” for the bill.
He continued to say that if you strip the bill of the word “terrorism”, you can see the extent to which the bill makes fundamental changes that affect civil rights.
Snowden’s talk was intended to encourage discussion about mass surveillance. QIAA had initially contacted Snowden’s lawyer and publishers, who handle Snowden’s public affairs, and after a long process of back-and-forth negotiations they secured Snowden as a keynote speaker.
Dr. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Center and author of the recent publication Surveillance After Snowden, acted as the moderator for the talk.
There were mixed opinions among audience members about Edward Snowden and his mass disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence documents to journalists in 2013.
Some students, like Mackenzie Schroeder, Nurs ’17, say Snowden’s actions were gutsy, but had good intentions.
Another guest, Akif Hasni, a PhD student in political studies, said he thought Snowden’s actions were important, despite the problems associated with publishing that information.
Other guests at the event didn’t completely agree with Snowden’s whistleblowing.
“It’s a dangerous thing to tell newspapers about. The thing about guys like Edward Snowden is that no one is going to know if what he did was good, while the action itself may be,” Sam Kary, ArtSci ’15, said.
Kary referred to John Oliver’s Snowden interview, where Oliver highlighted damages to national security caused by careless redacting of leaked documents by The New York Times.
The failure to properly redact leaked documents revealed the name of an NSA agent along with information on how the US government was targeting al-Qaeda operatives in Mosul in 2010.
— With files from Kate Meagher