Our Tragic Hero: Edward Snowden
Excitement for the event was palpable from the beginning. Lines of students stretched all the way down University Avenue, with many students having to ultimately settle for the live stream after Grant Hall reached capacity.
Queen’s International Affairs Association (QIAA) hosted the event, which was moderated by Professor David Lyon. Lyon recently published a book on mass surveillance, entitled Surveillance after Snowden.
Snowden began by talking about his background, which was seemingly at odds with the traditional profile of a whistle-blower.
He was certainly not a rebel who wanted to fight the power. Born to a family with strong ties to the American military, Snowden himself joined the Army at the age of 21 and eventually moved on to work for the National Security Agency (NSA).
Snowden said he initially believed in the cause for which he worked. However, his conscience became increasingly disturbed as he rose through the ranks of the NSA and gained higher security clearance. His disillusionment culminated with the 2013 leaks, which made him a household name—and an international fugitive.
For the next hour and a half, Snowden proceeded to explain the NSA’s sinister activities, as well as Canada’s own involvement in metadata surveillance.
As a member of the Five Eyes alliance (with the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand), Snowden claimed Canada’s own security agency (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, also known as CSIS) was engaged in egregious mass surveillance similar to the NSA.
As an example, Snowden described how CSIS used the public Wi-Fi system at Pearson Airport to record the unique identifying serial codes of phones and laptops, which were then used to track Canadians’ movement.
Throughout his speech, one wondered why he had chosen to make himself into a marked man. Snowden’s answer was that “sometimes an outlaw is required to provide a mandate for change”.
It seems unlikely that Snowden has anarchic motivations like his counterpart of Wikileaks-fame, Julian Assange. He certainly came across as a much more affable and principled character than the latter. But why would a man throw away a well-paying job and a family to be exiled in Russia for the common good? That question remained a curiosity.
There was also the question of whether he has succeeded or failed in his quest to shed more light into the dark alleyways of mass surveillance.
Certainly, since his leaking spree began in 2013, governments around the world have introduced more intrusive surveillance legislation, such as Bill C-51 in Canada and the “Snooper’s charter” in the United Kingdom.
Snowden’s main message was that citizens around the world should be aware of the extent of state surveillance and take appropriate measures to protect themselves. He argued: “there is only so much inhumanity, incivility, [and] injustice that we can stand”.
“sometimes an outlaw is required to provide a mandate for change”
Yet, repeated polls have suggested that the public is not that concerned by the violation of privacy through state surveillance.
Snowden said people assume state surveillance does not affect them if they are not doing anything wrong. But that, he said, is against the basic principles of our society, and we must fight to regain it back.
Certainly, one of Snowden’s main successes has been exposing the pervasiveness of surveillance in government. He described how metadata collection began as a novel idea during the Bush administration, although it has since morphed into a “culture of government” where surveillance has become the modus operandi.
The problem seemingly remains one of public apathy, even though it is arguably widely accepted by now that the surveillance-state has become alarmingly Orwellian in its scope.
After Snowden finished by officially opening the QIAA annual conference, he received a hero’s raucous ovation from the audience.
But is he really a hero that has delivered us from the tyranny of Big Brother? Or is he more of a tragic hero—driven by a virtuous cause and ultimately destined for a sad exit?
With countries increasingly pushing for greater intelligence gathering—especially in light of recent world events—one wonders whether Snowden’s fate is already sealed in tragedy.
Adnan Subzwari is News Editor of Juris Diction. He is a 2L student.
Duncan Field is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction. He is a 2L student.