Snowden Makes Surprise TED Appearance

Edward Snowden at TED | BCBusiness
A participant poses for a photo with Edward Snowden, or some version of him at least.

TED 2014 kicks into high gear on day two as Google founder Chris Anderson interviews whistleblower Edward Snowden

After a late night of reveling at TED’s opening party at Vancouver’s old Convention Centre, TED curator Chris Anderson woke the 1,200 delegates right up by introducing Edward Snowden, the world’s most infamous (or revered, depending on your politics) whistle-blower. Beaming in from an undisclosed Russian location, Snowden controlled a mobile, wheeled screen—think airport check-in on coasters—Snowden’s avatar silenced the crowd when he was introduced by TED curator Chris Anderson. The tension broke when the image on the screen smiled and said, “I can see everyone. This is amazing!”

He then kept the audience (in the custom-built Vancouver Convention Centre and around the world), hanging on every word as he laid out his plan titled “Here’s How We Take Back the Internet.”

Watch it here

After an enthralling 40 minutes, he decided to have some fun and, via his robot, roamed the TED halls, posing for selfies with Google co-founder Sergey Brin and dozens of others.

Here are some excerpts from what Anderson described as “a true TED moment.”


Chris Anderson: You’ve been called many things in the last few months: whistleblower, traitor, hero… What words would you use to describe yourself?

Edward Snowden: You know, everybody who’s involved with this debate has been struggling over me, my personality and how to describe me. This isn’t the question we should be struggling with. Who I am really doesn’t matter at all. If I’m the worst person in the world, hate me and move on. What really matters here are the issues of the government we want, the Internet we want, the relationship between people and societies. That’s what I hope the debate will move towards. If i had to describe myself, I’m not a hero, patriot, traitor. I’d say I’m an American and a citizen.


There was another story, that the NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times a year. What was that about?

We heard in Congressional testimony, and this was amazing for someone like me from the NSA who’s seen the internal documents and knows what in them, to see officials testify under oath that there were no abuses, no violations of rules. We knew this story was coming. One event out of 2,776 affected more than 3,000 people. In another event, they intercepted all the calls in Washington DC — by accident. What’s amazing about this report is not only were there 2,776 abuses but the chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, had not even seen the report until the Washington Postcontacted her asking for comment. She then requested a copy from the NSA. What does that say about the state of oversight in the Senate when the chairman of the Intelligence Committee has no idea about thousands of abuses?


You might think if you haven’t done anything wrong then it doesn’t really matter. Why should we care about all this surveillance? 

The first thing is you’re giving up your rights. “I don’t think I’m going to need them so I’ll get rid of them, it doesn’t really matter, these guys will do the right thing.”  But your rights matter because you never know when you’ll need them. In democratic societies around the world, people should be able to pick up the phone, call family, send text messages to loved one, travel by train, buy an airline ticket — without wondering how those events will look to an agent of government, possibly not even your government but one years in the future. How might this be misinterpreted? We have a right to privacy. We require warrants to be based on probable causes. Trusting any government authority with the entirety of human communications without any oversight is too great a temptation to be ignored.


It’s been alleged you stole 1.7 million documents. So far, hundreds have been shared. Is there more to come?

There are absolutely more revelations to come. Some of the most important reporting is yet to come.


There was another story about the campaign to crack and undermine internet security. Can you explain Bullrun?

Again, we’ve got to thank the NSA for their candor. This is a program named after a civil war battle. It targets our own infrastructure. It’s a program thorough which the NSA intentionally misleads corporate partners, saying these are safe standards and we need to work with you to secure the system. In reality, it’s bad advice to companies that degrades the quality of service. They’re building in backdoors that not only can the NSA exploit, but so can anyone else with time and resources. They’re letting themselves into the world’s communications and this is really dangerous. If we lose a single standard, if we lose the trust of SSL, we will live in a less safe world overall. We won’t be able to access banks or commerce without worrying about people monitoring our communications.


So this means we’re open to cyberattack from other sources too?

Absolutely. The NSA has traditionally worn two hats; it’s been in charge of offensive operations and defensive operations. Usually, it prioritizes defense over offense; American secrets are worth more. If we hack Chinese business and steal its secrets, or those in Berlin, that’s of less value to the American people than making sure that the Chinese can’t get access to our secrets. In reducing the security of our own communications, they’re putting us at risk in a fundamental way.


Someone is making the calculation that it’s worth doing this, as a part of defense against terrorism. Is this a price worth paying?

When you look at the results of these programs countering terrorism, you see that’s unfounded. You don’t have to take my word for it. We had the first open court to review this outside secrecy arrangement. It was called Orwellian and likely unconstitutional. Congress has asked to be briefed and has produced bills to reform it. Two independent White House panels said the programs had never stopped a single imminent terrorism attack in the US. Is it really terrorism we’re stopping? Do these programs have any value at all? I say no. All three branches say no as well.


Do you think there’s a deeper motivation for them other than war against terrorism?

The bottom line is that terrorism is used as a cover for action. Terrorism provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize and authorize programs they wouldn’t have otherwise. The US asked for this authority in the 1990s; it asked the FBI to make the case in Congress, and they said no, it’s not worth the risk to the economy, it would do too much damage to society to justify gains. But in the post 9/11 era, they used secrecy and justification of terrorism to start programs in secret without asking Congress or the American people. Government behind closed doors is what we must guard against.

So TED’s mission is “ideas worth spreading.” What’s your idea worth spreading?


I would say the last year has been a reminder that democracy may die behind closed doors. We don’t have to give up privacy to have good government, we don’t have to give up liberty to have security. By working together we can have open government and private lives. I look forward to working with everyone to see that happen.

An earlier version of this article stated that Sergey Brin interviewed Edward Snowden. It was Chris Anderson that interviewed Edward Snowden.