Edward Snowden: A new kind of system is needed to guarantee our legal rights

Edward Snowden: A new kind of system is needed to guarantee our legal rights

Edward Snowden

Law is not universally enforceable in the way we believe it is in theory – but “does it always have to be that way?”, Edward Snowden has asked.

The American whistleblower, whose revelations in 2013 exposed Britain and America’s mass spying programmes, was addressing the ORGCon conference on surveillance, free expression and digital privacy at Friends House in London.

Speaking via video link from Moscow, Mr Snowden said that “We have relied on law relentlessly throughout the history of activism, of human rights, of human progress … because we had no alternative”.

But law is simply “black letters on a page” and “ink can’t protect your rights”, he added.

He cited Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq War as evidence that “we don’t have the kind of accountability that the system is supposed to grant”.

The former CIA employee asked: “Can we use systems of our learning, our science, our technology, to create mathematically reliable guarantees of certain measures?”

This, said Mr Snowden, is the promise of encryption and the reason it “so alarms governments”.

Technology, however, is not enough. Such a solution is “too pat” and inaccurate because “we’ve seen that technology can cause our problems”.

“But what if we can bring our beliefs, our ideology, our activism, our law, our collective action together so that rather than relying exclusively on law, exclusively on technology, exclusively on protest, on activism – on any of these methods – they serve as a new kind of [system of] checks and balances, so that they are mutually reinforcing.”

Governments are “still abusing secrecy in amazing historic ways” but it is now “harder for them to suppress the truth”. What they are doing, he said, “is trying to remove our ability to respond to that truth – and right now they’re succeeding”.

Mr Snowden’s US passport was cancelled in 2013 and he has been stranded in Russia ever since.

He said: “I ended up stuck in Russia and it’s not my choice to be here. I’ve applied for asylum in 28 countries around the world, many of which are in Europe.”

Looking to the future, he told the audience he was not in a position to realise the kind of system of checks and balances he envisaged.

“I’m far away, I’m not connected, but you are connected, you are together, you are thinking, you are sharing, you are acting,” he said.

“So now the next step is to do.”

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