Sitting safely inside the head of a pale, grey telebot, slowly gyrating in an attempt to be innocuous; it turned to face the audience, introducing itself as Edward Snowden — the Worlds Most Wanted Man.
The whistleblowing warrior was presented “live” by Think Inc. at The Plenary in Melbourne. On his first Australian “tour”, he was straight to the point and ready to challenge. “No matter who you are, no matter what you're doing, no matter how innocent your life may be; you're being watched,” he opened.
“No matter where you go online, no matter what website you connect to, whether it's a news outlet, Amazon.com or YouTube, the government will now make a record of that because of the [Australian] Metadata Retention Bill. We should not have to cover up with encryption; we should be open that we want our privacy and rights protected.”
Projected behind the telebot onto a giant screen, Snowden said it was more than likely that the metadata of the 200+ audience members was being collected by governments and corporations. Indeed, everyone is watching everyone — recently up to 60 organisations, including the Department of Mines and Petroleum and bizarrely, Greyhound Racing Victoria had requested access to metadata without a warrant.
Snowden is not hiding in the shadows in Russia. His current outlet is the virtual world of robots, Twitter and satellite connections. He joked that it was not that far removed from his former life as an NSA operative before his great escape, le Carre style, from the now notorious NSA bunker in Hawaii to China and then Russia.
Snowden reminded us that “the NSA still doesn't know the amount of data I walked out of Hawaii with” as it was captured by data bots instead of humans. Trillions of packets of information are yet to come, and he is free to lambast the Malcolm Turnbull government for “unlawful metadata policies”, “the NBN Federal Police raids” and “the secret detention of Asylum seekers”.
One can only hope Snowden has a leak or two up his sleeve for the right time during the election. But he does have this piece of advice for the Australian election: “If a politician says privacy abuse is 'fine if you don't have anything to hide'. Don't vote for them! Tell everyone that the politician is quoting Joseph Goebbles, who said it first.”
A lightening fast talker and deep thinker, a youthful Snowden became one of the most provocative figures in our fourth industrial world. A disarmingly smart appearance and a heavily wired brain, he is one of the very few 21st century whistleblowers who has elegantly sidestepped character assassinations and divisive politics.
While US president Barack Obama originally referred to him as “a criminal”, there has been a softening of words and strengthening of public support after Snowden's motivations were revealed.
Like Obama and most of the world, he was against the Iraq War; he was against the unlawful NSA Orwellian system; he was against meta-data being handed over to the Israeli government; he was for the rule of law and the separation of powers.
Snowden calls himself an idealist and career militarist who lost faith after the Iraq lies. When the fog of war cleared, he was horrified by the destruction of American democracy via mass surveillance. Both the left and the right frequently refer to Snowden as democrat; as patriot; as strategic influencer.
It has been a wild ride for a kid who did not finish high school. The three years of strategic leaks, said Snowden, changed the world in six key areas:
• Caused citizens to further question their government and oppose the renewal of the (US) Patriot Act.
• NSA mass surveillance legalisation, under Section 215, expired last year and was not renewed due to the leaks. “Don't be misled,” says Snowden. “The NSA continues other secretive programs.”
• Spying on allies has been scaled back. The German government sacked wireless company Verizon after Snowden leaked that the US had conducted mass surveillance in Germany.
• The rise in encryption and user privacy startup companies — from Wickr messaging to encrypted Gmail. However, Snowden says encryption is completely hackable: “Trust me, this is what I used to do for a living,” he said.
• “Big Business”, outed as “co-conspirators” is now forced by customers to defend privacy. Citing the recent Apple case of the NSA hacking an iPhone, Snowden says: “Encryption is broken easily, and corporations regularly hand over files”.
• Whistleblowers have greater access to protection via the secrecy of the internet such as with the Panama Papers but are still being persecuted in the US.
Snowden has an interesting new opinion about September 11. He said he was thrown into international events on September 11 and joined the military. Now he is openly questioning the September 11 narrative.
When asked whether he has access to September 11 documents and insider information, Snowden replied very seriously: “In America, there is serious debate about the Saudis and 9/11. The government should release the 28 pages.”
Snowden is from a new era: everything is questionable, everything can be leaked, everything can be published. In the transition from the printing press to electronic media, the superstructure promised super transparency. Much to the chagrin of the elite, Snowden took that very literally.
He continues to leak freely and examine metadata spying programs. And while we worry about metadata and spying, governments around the world continue to fear Snowden and a second NSA leaker who is unknown and ready to shock the system.