NSA leaker Edward Snowden addresses Toronto school from Russia
U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden addressed hundreds of high school students at a world affairs conference held Monday night at a Toronto private school.
The former NSA contractor was the keynote speaker at the annual World Affairs Conference, which was organized by students from Upper Canada College and Branksome Hall in Toronto.
The moderated discussion, dubbed “Privacy vs. Security: A Discussion of Personal Privacy in the Digital Age,” saw Snowden answer questions via video teleconference from Russia, where he now lives in asylum. He was joined by journalist Glenn Greenwald via video link.
Approximately 900 community members – mostly students -- attended the event, which was also livestreamed on UCC’s website. The Q&A lasted approximately 90 minutes.
Snowden fled the U.S. in 2013 after leaking thousands of classified documents. Greenwald, then a journalist for a British daily newspaper, worked with Snowden to expose American espionage secrets. The leak sparked a global discussion on government, mass surveillance and privacy.
Since then, Snowden has worked with civil liberties groups and lectured on privacy rights.
During Monday’s Q&A, Snowden touched on Canada’s new anti-terror legislation, warning Canadian citizens to “be very careful” when government tries to set up such powers.
The new legislation, tabled last Friday, would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) powers to interfere in suspected terrorists’ activities on Canadian soil, including disrupting bank transactions and travel plans to thwart a terror attack.
“Once we let these powers get rolling, it’s very difficult to stop that pull through,” Snowden said.
Greenwald said Canadians have a greater chance of dying from slipping on bathroom tiles or being struck by lightning than in a terrorist attack.
“The chances you will die in a terrorist attack is infinitesimal,” Greenwald said.
The journalist also said the government was fear-mongering, which he called “a very dangerous yet very effective form of getting people to submit to things that they wouldn’t submit to.”
Snowden appearance sparks debate
Conor Healy, a UCC Grade 12 student and the conference’s chairperson, said that when he reached out to Snowden’s lawyer, the former NSA contractor saw an opportunity.
“Not only is it the first time he’s speaking to students in Canada, but it is the first time he is speaking to students of a high school age, period,” Healy told CTV Toronto.
The 31-year-old Snowden remains a polarizing figure in the U.S., with some viewing him as a courageous whistleblower, while others slam him for potentially endangering public safety.
In Toronto, his involvement in the student-run conference has sparked a similar division within the UCC community.
On the school’s website, a commenter who identified himself as a UCC alumnus expressed his concern with having a “self-admitted thief” as keynote speaker.
“By condoning his participation at the WAC, UCC is lending its name to legitimization of his actions. I fear this will have negative repercussions for the school’s reputation and it is not a lesson that I personally want my son to receive,” the commenter wrote.
Another commenter suggested the school take a more “balanced” approach.
“At a minimum there should be a representative of the opposite view to Snowden with equal time allotment — perhaps someone from the Secret Service or Military explaining the damage created by Snowden and the fight against terrorism,” they wrote.
Others praised the decision to invite Snowden.
One wrote: “As a parent of a UCC student, pleased to be able to participate via Livestream to hear the thoughts & comments of this provocative, polarizing, & undoubtedly quite interesting individual.”
Prior to the event, students said it was an opportunity to further explore issues they’re already talking about.
“Sometimes we’ll be chatting online and we’ll jokingly say, ‘Oh, what if the government was watching this,’” said Lucas Cusimano, another conference organizer. “But it’s a real issue that we have to think about.”
UCC recognized the sensitivity of having such a controversial speaker, but the benefits outweighed the potential risks.
“Many are calling him criminal, some are using the term hero, but I don’t think that negates us from having him as a speaker,” Healy said.
With files from CTV Toronto’s Ashley Rowe