Edward Snowden is the closest a living human has come to being a Kafka character. Marooned in Moscow since 2013 after revealing state secrets or exposing the National Security Agency for surveilling Americans (depending on your point of view), he remains a sought-after speaker on the topic of cyber spying and surveillance. Over the last four years, Snowden has remained relevant to the international conversation only through high-profile appearances facilitated by video technology. A man on a screen. Or screens, as it were. “In 2016, he did something like 50 appearances around the world,” says his ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner. We asked Wizner how, and why, he does it.
Popular Mechanics: Did you have a debate with Snowden about whether to do public appearances at all?
Ben Wizner: Yes, and for the most part, it has been me encouraging it and his reluctance. When he first introduced himself, in June of 2013, he didn’t do any interviews at all until a print interview six months later. And then it was many more months before he did his first television interview with Brian Williams in 2014. Now he’s represented by a speakers’ bureau, and at least once a month we’ll get a paid speaking engagement, which is how he’s able to live without a full-time job. But most of the speaking engagements that he does are still pro bono.
PM: Does it help his cause to stay in the spotlight?
BW: I think it does. He’s one of the few people in the world who can draw a mass audience to abstract conversations about privacy and security. So yeah, I think that it’s helped the cause and it’s helped him. You read his critics, these sort of conspiracy books: Is he a spy for another government? But if you spend a couple of hours just clicking around YouTube watching his public appearances, you can’t doubt that he genuinely cares about democracy and reform.
PM: Do you think appearing on video makes Snowden feel less like he’s in exile?
BW: I do think so. And in a way he’s more socially connected now than he was when he worked in the intelligence community. Remember, this is someone who was being placed around the world in jobs that he couldn’t talk about. He is very accustomed to having social interactions online. For him, the idea that most of his social life is occurring through a screen is a continuation, not a rupture. I think it’s another way of saying that exile is a very different proposition in 2017 than it was 50 years ago, or even 25.
So You Want To Call Ed Snowden…
For public appearances, Snowden often uses ordinary video-chat services, such as Google Hangouts or Jitsi, the latter a slightly more secure program that doesn’t go through any company’s central servers. “We don’t concern ourselves that much with security for his public appearances because they’re public, so it doesn’t really matter if someone is surveilling the connection,” says Wizner. For private conversations, Snowden is more likely to use a free encrypted communications app such as Signal, which, though not 100 percent secure (a government agency could hack the endpoints, says Wizner), is more protected than regular chat programs, and easier to learn than, say, PGP email, which Snowden famously tried, and failed, to teach reporter Glenn Greenwald to use when he initially released his trove of documents.
Buy Your OwnSnowbot!
Around the ACLU’s offices in New York City, Edward Snowden often appears as a telepresence robot nicknamed the Snowbot. The machine, called the BeamPro, looks a lot like an iPad duct-taped to a Segway, but Wizner says it feels almost like having Snowden around for real. “It’s a lot more intimate than Skype,” he says. Suitable Technologies, the Palo Alto–based company that created the BeamPro, mostly sells the bots to businesses that want to allow their employees to telecommute. They can be prohibitively expensive for people without company slush funds, however, which is why Suitable Technologies also offers the stripped-down Beam, a smaller bot that performs most of the same functions but is available online for $1,995.So do you want to call Ed Snowden…
The Time Snowden was Almost a Hologram
In February 2015, two Toronto students managed to convince Snowden to speak at an event, the World Affairs Conference, at their high school, Upper Canada College. We asked them how they did it.
Conor Healy, former student
“Once Snowden had agreed to appear, I called Hologram USA—the people who did the hologram of Tupac at Coachella. They were all over it. They agreed to offer us some sort of freebie, comp stuff, but we also needed to pull together $25,000, which we did. And then the worst thing happened: The assembly hall that we were going to hold the talk in did not have the power requirements the machines required.”
Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney
“I remember the CEO of that company [Hologram USA] reaching out to me. At that time, they would have needed to park a satellite truck outside of where Snowden was broadcasting from to do it, and he wasn’t eager to have anybody know what his home address was. So that was a security issue—how do we know? We said that it wouldn’t be possible.”
Nick Elder, former student
“What we did in the end is we just called him over Google Hangouts. Literally with hundreds of people sitting there in the room, I just clicked ‘call’ and he picked up. At one point we couldn’t get Google Hangouts working and Ed was saying, try this and try that, over the phone. That was pretty memorable: I got tech support from Ed Snowden.”
Source: This story was first published by Popular Mechanics.