Tech companies are beyond government control, Edward Snowden tells Ontario college administrators

Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden attacked global companies that collect large amounts of personal data for intruding on privacy, complaining they are beyond the control of most governments.

In a keynote address Monday to the annual Colleges Ontario conference for administrators via video feed from Moscow, where he has been forced to live since revealing in 2013 how Western governments had been scooping up masses of data on unsuspecting people, Snowden said not much has changed.

“Since 2013 we have seen the trend continue. While we have gotten reforms in many countries, we have shaved off many of the rough edges of the darkest intrusions into our lives, we have seen that this machine, this architecture, this program [of personal data collection] is being perused by many institutions, not just the United States, not just Canada . . . (but also) Russia, China. It is being pursued by companies, it is being pursued by criminals.

“So even resigning in protest, even going to the press does not stop the machine,” he said at one point.

“Now we’re talking about how do we preserve a free society in face of corporate powers that are completely unanswerable to the majority of governments in the world. If you’re not the American government, Facebook does not care what you say, they do not care what your laws are. Mark Zuckerberg won’t even go and be questioned by the British Parliament. How do we structure a better system in the face of these kinds of threats? That’s the conversation we’re having today.”

Later, in response to a question from interviewer and former CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge that people voluntarily give some personal data to tech companies, Snowden disagreed. Consumers don’t give meaningful consent to having data collected, he said.

If you don’t have a Facebook account the social media company can still create a ‘shadow’ profile if a subscriber posts a photo of you that is identified through facial recognition, he argued.

Even those who don’t use Google Search or Maps or Gmail leave a trail of information if they have an Android smartphone, he said. Arguably one can’t get a job or a loan today without a mobile phone or email address, he added.

“The cost and consequences of engaging in ordinary acts of daily lives are opening yourself up to victimization by companies that say, ‘You signed up for this.’ But I would say no, we did not volunteer for this.

“This is the question the next generation — unfortunately, because we were too slow in doing so — will have to answer.”

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When Mansbridge pushed, asking if internet users have the right to be “morally outraged” by the activities of social media companies, Snowden repeated that users don’t have a choice. Microsoft, he noted, collects a lot of data about the PCs of Windows users — and even though they paid for the operating system, the data collection can’t be turned off.

“You’re asking do we have the right to be outraged at a system that has been constructed whereby even if we want to keep our children from being monitored. from having profiles created, they have no meaningful alternative. What kind of phone can you provide your children so they won’t be tracked?”

Telecommunications providers, he added, keep years of records of where and when and to who users make phone calls.

“Most people would say I have nothing to hide,” Snowden said “but privacy isn’t about something to hide. It’s about something to protect: A free and open society where we can be different, where we can have unusual, even heretical ideas and not be judged for them unless they actually harm people.

“It’s about a voluntary and selective system of sharing that we agree to because that preserves our power. Privacy is about vulnerability, it’s about how much is known about you. And therefore it is about power.

“This is not to say there should be no [government] secrets … but we have lost without our knowing, without casting a vote or discussing what is happening, our seat at the table of government. Meaningful consent, informed consent was replaced with the appearance of it. Meaningful elections were replaced with the pageantry of elections.

“I believe, unfortunately, this has opened the door to a lot of the reactionary politics we have seen today — the erosion of trust. Governments wonder, institutions wonder why they have lost some of their effectiveness, not why people are turning into themselves, their closest communities, their friends . . . and the answer is their trust has been abused. And needs to be rebuilt if we are to correct course.”

Unfortunately, he said even going to the press isn’t stopping governments like China using data to oppress minorities.

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Asked by a member of the audience what members of the public can do, Snowden said they can teach their children to make better choices, to use the Tor browser to limit the amount of information social media can gather, block ads, and use encrypted text messaging apps.

“The first thing you have to do, is to care, is to believe that it matters,” he added. “We moved out of the jungle of history only to face Google and Facebook today, saying, ‘Sure (privacy) was great back then but it doesn’t really matter anymore.’

“What is more important to you: A right to privacy or a more personalized experience?”

Colleges Ontario represents the province’s 24 colleges.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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