Lessons from snowden: his lawyer on whistleblowing and surveillance

March 22nd, 2019 | hUI wEN zHENG

lead organizers: Hui Wen zheng, megan siyi liu

aSSISTS: dante wong, almeera khalid (amnesty uoft)

Keeping with the tradition of hosting prolific speakers on timely issues for their annual keynote events, the Debates & Dialogue Committee partnered with the U of T chapter of Amnesty International to end off their 2018/19 season with a keynote presentation by Robert Tibbo, the Canadian lawyer for Edward Snowden. It was followed by a panel discussion featuring Kate Robertson; lawyer and fellow at the Citizen Lab, Jonathan Obar; professor from York University, and Brenda McPhail, the Director of Privacy, Technology, and Surveillance at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The sold-out March 22nd event was moderated by Megan Siyi Liu, the Committee’s External Communications Lead.

Digital security has become an increasingly discussed topic around the world following the shocking revelations in made 2013 by the 29-year-old NSA contractor. The fact that the US government had been secretly conducting mass internet and telephone surveillance on its citizens, directing companies to release customer information, and spying on the governments of foreign countries and allies continues to be a great concern. With recent scandals such as Cambridge Analytica, and privacy breaches for users of Marriott and Facebook, the keynote and panel discussion centered around the balance between security and privacy, the ethics of whistleblowing, and what citizens can do about unjust surveillance. There were also several appeals to action to help the “Snowden Refugees” – the families that hid Snowden during his time in Hong Kong who are now facing persecution. Along with a team of lawyers based in Montreal, Tibbo has been working for the past seven years to bring them to Canada and urged audience members to spread the word about their case.

Tibbo began his keynote address by refreshing the audience on the events of 2013 and by applauding the generosity of his refugee clients for hiding Snowden in Hong Kong – away from the eyes of the United States government. Increasingly, he notes, democracy is coming under attack by the surveillance state. This has become ever more prominent with alliances such as the Five Eyes, of which Canada is a party to along with the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia. Tibbo is especially concerned with the non-transparent nature of the use of data collected on citizens, stating that governments have rarely behaved well in situations of non-transparent policy-making. Especially as technology corporations such as Google monopolize the internet real estate, Tibbo worries that the long-term consequences of their actions are not being considered in the short-term goal of manipulating users’ consumer habits and behaviours. As a former constitutional lawyer, he also noted that the Snowden revelations created more self-censorship has people began to fear being watched and is a limiting factor in the freedom of expression. As for how we can protect ourselves, Tibbo suggested the use of encrypted communication is important, though we must be diligent to develop new modes of encryption as many governments have developed the capability to decrypt certain “secure” communications. Tibbo’s ended with a resounding last note for the next generation to act against the attitude of “I have nothing to hide” before it becomes too late.

The panel discussion began with scrutinizing the question of whether the dichotomy crafted by governments of security and privacy is, in fact, valid or not. The speakers were all in agreement that there is no zero-sum game between the two. Robertson noted that surveillance can oftentimes undermine security, as tools used by governments and corporations trickle down into the grey market as it inevitably does. McPhail also takes issue with the framing of the issue as one between life and death, stating that such a conception removes the average person’s ability to consider privacy as a fundamental human right. Especially as data usage has come to determine algorithms for who goes stopped by the police, who gets stopped at the border, just to name a few, Obar wants to properly represent the real-life consequences of the security-privacy seesaw. Tibbo believes that the underlying issue is a lack of general knowledge about the use of our data and by which actors and wants to see more discussions of the ethics around data usage within all levels of education and situations.

On the topic of what constitutes ethical whistleblowing, two cases were highlighted for their differences in outcome: the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails ahead of the 2016 election and the revelation post-election that Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook data to increase support for the Republican Party. While there is no one-set-fits-all whistleblowing regime that is the most appropriate, Robertson believes that an essential feature of a morally-good regime is that it is centered around the public interest. McPhail adds to this by stating that in cases of state accountability, it is always a public good to disclose such information. Unfortunately, Tibbo notes that the number of whistleblowers is very few and there has been an unprecedented rise in the amount of persecution by governments. As an example of successful protection of public interests (the surveillance program that was revealed has since been shut down) at great personal cost, he pointed to the example of his client, Edward Snowden.

The possibility of international cooperation to set standards of data usage was agreed to be a desirable goal, but the path to achieving appears much more difficult. Both Robertson and McPhail noted that there are different values placed upon privacy depending on where you are in the world. McPhail notes that there is a divide between western liberal democracies and more authoritarian countries in the application of surveillance, and advocates caution in negotiations. Obar stated his criticism of the “big brother” metaphor of states being the biggest actors in data collection. Instead, he points out that thousands of public and private entities can have access to your information and that network sovereignty must be a key in any discussions of international regulation.

The event concluded with a the question of how users can protected themselves in a world where data is the new currency, to which Obar stressed the need for transparency of data usage. He pointed to his project with UofT Professor Andrew Clement, ixmaps.ca, which allows users to check where in the world their personal data is being sent to. He called for more research into the subject and a greater demand for better consent mechanisms than just pressing an “I agree” button at the end of a long block of text. McPhail disagreed by stating the need to not give up on collection as a principle, and to vote with your values in mind. Her optimism for the democratic process is also echoed by Robertson, who believes that we need to keep expecting privacy in order to uphold our socially-constructed laws around it. Tibbo is more cautionary in his approach, stating that in a situation that moves as quickly as data usage, we need to focus on protecting ourselves with encryption, and secure and custom telecommunications systems. Ultimately, he recommends everyone to have more face-to-face conversations about this issue in order to strengthen our ability to demand.

The question and answer period featured a question around the privacy-convenience trade-off, to which McPhail suggested to people to not take the easiest route all the time. Pointing to her own smartwatch, she cites it as a case where convenience comes ahead of privacy, but that it is a choice she makes consciously.  Another question arose about why the Snowden refugees have not been admitted to Canada yet. In response, Tibbo urged audience members to spread the word, and write to their MPs to help speed along the lengthy process.

Two days following the event, it was revealed that the first family of the Snowden Refugees was granted refugee asylum in Canada. Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana arrived in Toronto and May 25th and will be starting their new lives in Montreal with the assistance of Tibbo and For The Refugees. The status of the other 5 asylum seeker remains unresolved.

read more about the snowden refugees

The Globe and Mail

The National Post

Human Rights Watch

CBC interview with Edward Snowden (April 3rd, 2019)

In the media

The Varsity