LETHBRIDGE - "If we only knew what governments wanted us to know, we wouldn't know very much."
That from Edward Snowden, the man who gave classified U.S. government documents to journalists in 2013 which revealed governments around the world were spying on its citizens; those who had never committed a crime or were suspected of any wrongdoing.
He appeared live from a location in Moscow, where he currently lives in exile, to audiences at the University of Lethbridge, Winnipeg and Brandon.
Beginning his live speech with a standing ovation from the crowd, Snowden talked about U.S. President Donald Trump firing the Director of the FBI.
"We should not lose sight of the fact that for whatever reason, and for whatever justification or context is provided, the President of the United States has just fired the man in charge of a criminal investigation into the actions of his administration."
Looking solemnly at the crowd he said it was alarming and should cause concern for everyone, regardless of how anyone feels about politics, because it called into question the U.S.'s commitment to the rule of law.
But the rule of law, Snowden explains, is often applied selectively by countries around the world, including Canada because of their mass surveillance techniques on computers, smart phones and by other means.
He says many governments thrive on fear, are not questioned enough on their motives, and aren't challenged by the public as often as they should be, which calls into question the entire democratic process.
"Consent is only meaningful if it is informed. Even votes become meaningless."
Citing examples from around the world, including the RCMP's investigation of Montreal's La Presse Journalist Patrick Lagace to try and obtain confidential information about his story sources, and CSIS refusing to either confirm or deny whether they do the same with other journalists, he says violations of personal rights and freedoms are routinely thwarted.
"Police and intelligence forces are increasingly considering investigative journalism to be a kind of threat. Their own classified documents... showed journalists were being ranked between hackers and terrorists on the matrix of threats to national security... When hackers get information, generally only a few people know about it. But journalists share things with the world."
"How can we criticize the Russian government and its abusive and completely indefensible surveillance programs," he goes on, "or those of the Chinese, when we ourselves are violating those same rights simply in different ways, or perhaps by different degrees?"
He says it's a sad lesson of the last few years and that no goverment sought the permission of its citizens when it launched the mass surveillance of its citizens. They deployed the programs in secret, which they have publicly acknowledged are unlawful and un- constitutional.
And there's no easy way to get around those surveillance techniques, especially when so many people own smart phones, use Facebook, Google and other social media.
"Google and Facebook can't jail you. But they do collaborate with governments and cooperate with the NSA far beyond what is required of them. All government needs to investigate you is a gut feeling."
Living in exile in Russia now, a country which infamously and routinely violates human rights, is not lost on Snowden. But he says whistleblowers are never safe in their country, and if you embarrass those who are in power -- especially in relation to official secrets regardless of whether it was right or wrong or unlawful -- you are going to be a wanted person. He says he is still one of Russia's greatest critics, especially when it comes to the prohibition on gay marriage and association.
Snowden emphasizes that he did not choose to stay in Russia. In fact, he applied for asylum in more than 20 countries, including Canada. When the U.S. heard that Bolivia would accept him, his passport was revoked, stranding him at Moscow's airport. After several weeks, he was offered asylum, and has remained in that country for the last four years.
Looking down a number of times and pursing his lips, he says that now, it doesn't matter what happens to him. He has given information he believed was the public's right to know, and what's important now, is what the public does with that information. He even hinted that more information may be forthcoming.
If Snowden returns to the U.S. he faces charges of Espionage and 30 years in prison.
"I can go to sleep at night proud of the choices that I've made... I came forward with one specific purpose: to tell the public that which was done in their name, and that which was done against them."
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