Two of the people who posed questions to Edward Snowden during a sold-out Vancouver event say the whistle-blower provided valuable insight on issues both global and individual in scale.
Mr. Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor responsible for the release of thousands of classified documents detailing the American government's use of mass surveillance, spoke via video link during an event hosted by Simon Fraser University on Tuesday night. He is living in Russia under political asylum.
His comments touched on a number of areas, from the Panama Papers and the importance of whistle-blowers, to Canada's new anti-terror legislation, to what individuals can do to better protect their privacy.
Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a member of the panel that put questions to Mr. Snowden, said in an interview Wednesday that the event at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre had an "electric quality" to it.
Ms. Vonn said the Panama Papers – a cache of 11.5 million records leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that has been retained by politicians and business leaders around the world to channel money into tax havens – were a natural focus for the event.
But she said she was also struck by Mr. Snowden's response when he was asked if analytics could be used to determine who would turn to terrorism.
Mr. Snowden said a review of a U.S. government surveillance program found it "had never stopped a single terrorist attack in the United States." He said the program was also found to have "never made a concrete difference in a single terrorism investigation."
Ms. Vonn, in the interview, said Mr. Snowden's response highlighted the way in which a program can "create entire suspect communities as collateral damage for a program that doesn't work."
Mr. Snowden also discussed Canada's new anti-terror legislation and the country's connection to the United States and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
"It's about broadening that bucket and making sure we put more Canadian information in that sharing bucket," he said. "… Now I don't want to say that it's absolutely what's happening, but … this is how it works, this is what we do for every other country."
Peter Chow-White, an associate professor at SFU's School of Communication who was also on Tuesday night's panel, in an interview said he appreciated Mr. Snowden's advice on how individuals can protect their privacy.
"We're in a bit of a dilemma because we're increasingly concerned about privacy, but we're not behaving like it," Prof. Chow-White said.
Mr. Snowden suggested people use a Tor browser and download an app called Signal for encrypted phone calls and text messages. He also suggested using a password manager and two-factor authentication for websites that allow it.
When asked about the Panama Papers, Mr. Snowden said they reveal "the most privileged and the most powerful members of society are operating by a different set of rules.
"They're increasingly guarding knowledge of their operations, of their assets, of their interests," he said. "At the same time, through programs of mass surveillance revealed in recent years, we, the private citizens, are increasingly transparent to government. The relationship between the governing and the governed has become inverted. And rather than those who represent us in our government being accountable to us, we are now accountable to them."
Mr. Snowden said the Panama Papers show "more than ever, the role of the whistle-blower in a free society has become not only desirable but vital."
When asked if he had had any contact with the person who leaked the Panama Papers records, Mr. Snowden said he had not.