Edward Snowden abandoned his six-figure salary, his house in the tropical paradise of Hawaii, and the love of his life. This was all in order to expose the dark truth about global surveillance programs. “I had a comfortable life,” Snowden told a full house via livestream at the University of Alberta’s Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science on Tuesday, March 27.
However, Snowden, who is currently living in Russia under the right of asylum, did not focus his lecture solely on surveillance programs. Rather, he presented the larger issue at hand: the fact that we, the public, are losing our power as citizens.
“Don’t focus too singularly on the data problem itself,” Snowden said. “We are being robbed of power and attention.”
Snowden explained how governments and other powerful organizations like Facebook and Google are exploiting the public’s ignorance. One of the greatest problems facing society today, Snowden said, is “the theft of influence.” This is the theft of the public’s ability to make decisions autonomously. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is obvious that social media networks are harvesting our personal information and using it to influence our decisions.
“What I worry about is that this theft of influence is leading to the diminishment of the value of choice,” Snowden said.
Snowden spent a lot of his talk emphasizing the importance of journalism in today’s society. He commented that “when all systems fail, the public is left to rely on public resources such as journalism and academia.”
While journalists have come under fire during the era of fake news, they continue to be a necessity in society. Without journalists, there would be no story of Edward Snowden, the infamous NSA whistleblower. “If we only knew what the government wanted us to know, we wouldn’t know much at all,” said Snowden.
Yet Snowden reminded the audience that governments are no longer the only ones with global power. Snowden said the only thing that separates governments and powerful organizations like Facebook and Google is the right to use military action.
“These companies know everything about us, and we know nothing about them,” Snowden explained.
An underlying theme that connected all of Snowden’s talking points is the fact that we live in a world where public and power are two separate entities; this is not democracy. Democracy is defined as a system of government in which the citizens exercise power and influence the government, not the other way around. Snowden exclaimed that societies are becoming more authoritarian and the public hasn’t even realized it. “Authoritarianism snuck up on us in the night,” he said.
While Snowden noted that the themes of his lecture were dark, he reminded the audience that things don’t have to be this way.
“I did not come forward to tell people how the world should be governed, I came forward to tell you what is happening” Snowden stated.
One person cannot change the way of the world. Edward Snowden did his part by telling the world what is happening. Now, it is up to the people to determine what to do about it. Snowden left the audience with the question: “If it doesn’t have to be this way, what can you do to change it?”
Images from Twitter & University of Alberta’s website.