NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden joined computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier at Manhattan concept store Story last night to talk about the right to privacy in the digital age, though neither one of them was physically in the room.
Both men appeared at Story—a selling and storytelling space currently promoting the USA Network hacker series Mr. Robot, which kicks off its second season tonight—through the use of Beam Pro telepresence robots. Snowden, who is living in Russia, has been using the device for a couple of years now to appear live at events. The simple robot—a screen sits atop two poles that are affixed to a motorized base on wheels—allows for two-way visual and audio communication as well as movement controlled by the user.
A fan of Mr. Robot (apparently, he can see the show wherever he is hiding out), Snowden posed for a photo with series star Carly Chaikin, who plays “fsociety” hacker Darlene, before the event began. The actress warmly draped her arm around Snowden for the snap, stretching it across the two poles supporting the screen on which his face appeared as though they were shoulders, demonstrating through that action how much the humanity of a person can be felt even when tucked inside a robot.
Speaking to an audience that included writer and cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, who sat in the front row, Snowden kicked off the conversation moderated by Craig Hatkoff, co-founder of both the Tribeca Film Festival and the Disruptor Foundation, who virtually presented Snowden with the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards inaugural Thoreau Prize for Public Service and Civil Disobedience, by remarking on President Obama’s evolution on the privacy discussion.
In 2013, Obama assured citizens that the government wasn’t listening to their phone calls as Snowden had pointed out. But by 2014, the president–though still not supportive of Snowden’s actions–acknowledged that the revelation sparked by Snowden’s leaking of documents revealing the government was indeed collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, had inspired a conversation about surveillance that will make the nation stronger.
“This is not about the actions of one person. This is not about what I did,” Snowden stressed. “This is about democracy. This is about the relationship between the government and the governed. This is about the world we want to live in, the kind of world we want to create.”
Reflecting on the time he spent at the NSA in Hawaii, Snowden said he was working with the tools of mass surveillance every day and violating everyone’s constitutional rights. “Now, this is not to say that the NSA is full of mustache-wearing villains who are out to get you all, trying to burn up the Bill of Rights and destroy everything that we hold dear,” Snowden said. “No, these are good people doing bad things, but what they believe is that they do it with reason.”
“This is the moral hazard of good intentions,” Snowden continued, explaining this is what happens when people get caught up in a system of thinking and stop thinking for themselves and listening to their consciences.
Lanier agreed with Snowden’s take, adding that he has a lot of friends who work at the NSA and the CIA. “I really want to emphasize—at least in my experience—these are good people. They really are, and, similarly, in the computer industry, I think we have a remarkably well-meaning class of new overlords if you’d like—perhaps one of the nicest and best educated set of overlords in all of history. Yet that doesn’t matter. If you have a bizarre imbalance of power that centralizes power too much, whether it’s created by technology or any other source, it’s inherently going to create moral imbalances as well.”
While he is currently living in Russia, unable to return to the U.S. for fear of being arrested and not given a fair trial, Snowden is also speaking out about the state of privacy in Russia where President Vladimir Putin recently signed into a law severe counterterrorism measures that allow for even more surveillance of Russians. “They won’t make anyone more safe,” Snowden argued. “We know in the United States that mass surveillance doesn’t work. We’ve had mass surveillance in our country for more than 10 years now. Despite whether it was legal or not, it was happening beginning with President Bush, and continuing with President Obama . . . These programs did not make a concrete difference in a single terrorism investigation. They never stopped a single terrorist attack in the United States.”
Snowden admitted that he is fearful of the ramifications of speaking out against the policies of Russia given that the country is hosting him. “I am afraid, but I was also afraid in the United States. It seems that was a quite a rational fear because the reality is that power is dangerous, and speaking truth to power is possibly the single most dangerous act that any person can engage in, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. That doesn’t mean that we should turn away from the risk,” he said. “In fact, I would argue that it’s not enough to believe in something. All of us have an obligation to stand for something if we want to make a difference.”
“I hope you’re okay there. I have to say, personally, the current state of Russia really creeps me out,” Lanier told Snowden, reiterating, “I hope you’re okay. I guess that’s all I can say.”
Beaming in from his house in Berkeley, California, Lanier turned the discussion to pop culture and privacy a few times, marveling at how people are willing to give up personal information for the privilege of playing games like Pokémon Go. “I think that everyone has heard of it by now. It is a pretty cool virtual reality experience,” Lanier said at one point, eliciting big laughs from the crowd, including the woman next to me who had been talking about her obsession with the game before the event began. “It turns out when people sign in to it, they are taking everything—all their email—giving everything they have to the company that runs it, which is incredible to me.” (Niantic, the game developer, has released a statement insisting Pokémon Go only accesses basic Google profile information.)
“There’s something very strange going on with our popular culture where cyber culture is all about giving up privacy, and it’s become considered forward-looking to give over your privacy to commercial companies in exchange for getting recommendations on people to date or music to listen to or whatever,” Lanier said. “I’m concerned that people are adjusting their orientation to privacy for these little bits of candy that come in without realizing that there’s a broader implication . . . It’s a difficult conversation to have because everyone likes their candy, right? Somehow, we have to resist the commercial loss of privacy if we also want to resist the political loss of privacy.”
While there were technical glitches that cut off the audio at times and interrupted the flow of the conversation, Snowden and Lanier shared a thought-provoking dialogue, occasionally turning their Beam Pro robots—outfitted with cameras facing outward—to get a better look at each other or the audience. Snowden, who has likely had a lot more experience using the Beam Pro, was a more skilled operator of the device. Lanier backed his into the metal gate behind him a couple of times.