On Tuesday night, the Bucknell Program for American Leadership hosted a virtual discussion with Edward Snowden, a former computer intelligence contractor most famous for leaking highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013 that revealed a secret and sprawling information-gathering program.
Students and the general public were invited to ask Snowden questions following a brief presentation that he conducted. Along with the roughly 100 participants via Zoom, there was also a large in-person crowd that viewed the discussion in Trout Auditorium.
His presentation, titled “Is ‘1984’ Now? A Discussion on Digital Surveillance Culture,” highlighted the many ways that governments and private organizations use technology to keep track of the general public’s whereabouts.
“This surveillance isn’t about safety. Surveillance is about control. It’s about power. It’s about being able to observe the situation away from your eyes, rather, multiply your eyes to expand your gaze to a greater domain, and most often an unequal domain,” Snowden said.
Snowden said that the increase in technology surveillance should have been a choice from the people, not made in secret by governments.
“Members of Congress themselves have complained that when they were passing laws, they did not understand how these laws were being interpreted by these agencies, how they’re going to change our world,” Snowden said.
The U.S. government has sought prosecution against Snowden under the 1917 Espionage Act for his actions. He has maintained permanent resident status in Moscow since 2013 after his passport was revoked during a flight layover while on his way to Latin America.
Snowden is currently the president of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to support free speech.
While many members of the audience seemed to support Snowden, asking questions on how to avoid this type of surveillance and his hope for the future, not all of them were as supportive.
Matt Gabler ’06, a former military officer, questioned Snowden’s asylum in Russia and the security dangers that might have arisen from his releasing of classified information.
In response, Snowden said, “I get this all the time,” following a laugh.
He said that it was not his intention to end up in Russia, and pointed out that it was during a flight layover that he became stuck in the country. Snowden even speculated that it could have been an intentional move by the U.S. government to stop him in Russia in an attempt to discredit him.
He also cited reports from the New York Times and The Guardian to say that there is no evidence to show his leaked information ever caused any direct harm to anyone.
Snowden also took the opportunity to explain why he never went to trial for his crimes.
“The whistleblower protection acts that were in place at the time did not protect contractors. Had I been an employee of the government still, had I been still a sworn officer of the CIA, I could have gone to Congress and hoped for the best,” Snowden said.
Despite the criticism and controversy surrounding Snowden, many audience members did enjoy the presentation.
Max Wechsler ’23 first heard about Snowden in 2013. He enjoyed Snowden’s conversation on the Joe Rogan Podcast in 2019 so much that he purchased his newly released book at the time.
“I am very happy I attended this talk. It was eye-opening on the topic of cyber security and privacy, and I learned a lot. I was particularly interested in his description of the way corporations can track your movements and actions even when you think they are unable to,” Wechsler said.
“The military officer represented the doubts of Snowden’s actions with his question about exposing national security secrets and taking his findings to media outlets instead of proper legal channels. I thought Snowden offered a clear and valid explanation that exposed the issues with holding the government accountable for unlawful actions. Snowden offered a much deeper explanation of this in his book, but it was promising to see him stand by his actions and maintain consistency almost a decade after coming forward.”
Other students agreed.
“I thought his talk was very informative both from a technical and a moral standpoint,” Ashlyn Ramos ’22 said. “Hearing him go a little more in-depth about how the government and other companies treat surveillance was interesting and hearing him explain his opinions on legality versus morality was fascinating. I also appreciated the Q&A section because students posed questions that I would not have thought of and we got to hear more outside of the speech he is likely accustomed to giving.”
Snowden closed the discussion with how he believes a change can be made.
“The system as it exists today survives only because we go along with it. When we withhold our participation, when we recognize that we did not agree to this… that’s when things will change,” he said.