A packed conference room in the basement of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre was the scene of a seemingly odd encounter yesterday, as hundreds of tech CEOs and investors, fresh from poring over financials on Canada’s top tech companies, were treated to an hour-long discourse on personal rights and freedoms and the nature of power in democratic states, all at the hands of one Edward Snowden.
In a conversation at times both searching and intimate, Snowden, via online feed from Russia, spoke with tech entrepreneur Bruce Croxon, co-founder of the dating site Lavalife and now co-host of the BNN TV show The Disruptors, who held the stage at the 2017 Cantech Investment Conference in Toronto.
Set against a nondescript grey background and appearing on screen as relaxed and composed, the former U.S. intelligence contractor and National Security Agency whistleblower, now in exile at an undisclosed location inside Russia, talked almost without pause for over 60 minutes, ranging on topics such as the complicity of telecom companies in government-led breaches of privacy -what Snowden called the “original sin” of the telecommunications industry- and an international security climate which rewards offence (hacking) over defence (supporting privacy-preserving research and innovation).
“The thing which we are protecting is an open society,” said Snowden. “A free society in which people can be different, people can disagree, people can rebel in radical ways against the orthodoxies of the time.” he said. “Privacy and the space to be different is the foundation of all rights in a free society.”
When prompted, Snowden was particularly clear in his condemnation of the Canadian government for its anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51. “[Before Bill C51] it was actually incredibly difficult to spy on someone even in oblique ways, but the framework of Canadian intelligence oversight has absolutely collapsed with Bill C 51,” said Snowden. “It’s easy to collect information about Canadian citizens in bulk, particularly the meta-data.”
Praise was given to tech giant Apple for its refusal last year to give the U.S. government access to data on a terrorist’s iPhone, while at the same time Snowden disparaged BlackBerry for its cooperation with government requests for data access. When asked by Croxon about the company’s claims to being the most secure mobile device in the world, Snowden demurred, saying that, in fact, BlackBerry does cooperate with all government requests, both in Canada and the U.S. as well as in countries like India. “They follow the AT&T model which is that the customer is not really their customer, the state is the customer,” says Snowden, “as that’s the only person they have to please at the end of the day.”
More broadly, Snowden said that both the U.S. and the West in general have “lost the moral high ground” when it comes to privacy protection and that the impending changeover in power in the United States will make less difference on the issue of privacy and security than one might think, as most elected officials, especially at the highest levels, find it difficult to deny themselves the overarching scope and power that comes with today’s intelligence technology, part of what Snowden calls “the power of exception.”
But the tone of the conversation turned more personal at the end when Croxon asked Snowden to speak about his own future, particularly with reference to the looming possibility that President-Elect Donald Trump might seek help from Russian authorities to extradite Snowden to the United States for prosecution.
Sounding remarkably sanguine, Snowden said that he’s satisfied with the decisions he’s made. “Look, I don’t have to be afraid anymore, that’s the beautiful thing about this,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and I don’t know what Donald Trump is going to do … Whatever the consequences that come to pass, I’m prepared to accept them.”
Below: Edward Snowden comments on Bill C-51 and Canadian liberties