Whether the individuals gathered in William & Mary’s Commonwealth Auditorium Tuesday afternoon thought Edward Snowden was a patriot or a traitor, the whistleblower had one lesson for them all.
“One voice is enough to change the world, and I think it should be yours,” he said.
Snowden, a former government employee who in 2013 revealed classified information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, spoke via webcast to a full house in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium as part of a student-organized event co-hosted by the campus media council and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. According to student Tucker Higgins ’17, chair of the council and event coordinator, approximately 500 people attended the discussion on campus, and thousands more viewed it online with the video receiving more than 300,000 views and 4,500 shares as of Wednesday morning.
Lawrence Wilkerson, distinguished visiting adjunct professor of public policy at W&M, moderated the event, which Higgins said was made possible through the support of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that supports journalism that exposes mismanagement, corruption and law-breaking in government.
Representatives from several student organizations asked questions during the second half of the discussion before the microphone was turned over to other audience members for questions.
Snowden said that although surveillance, which is all about power, was once naturally restricted by its high cost, technology today has outpaced democratic controls.
“For the first time in human history, it is both technologically and financially possible for governments to track and store nearly complete records of our private lives,” he said. “This is not science fiction. This is happening now.”
Governments do not ask permission before they act, Snowden asserted, and the implementation of unconstitutional surveillance programs succeeded because of a failure of Congressional oversight. Journalists are vital to keeping the public informed in such instances, but they are coming under threat even in free societies, he added.
“This should inevitably lead us to consider what kind of world we would be facing should governments and other powerful institutions, such as corporations, actually succeed in countering the threat of journalism they are perceiving,” he said. “If we only knew what governments want us to know, we wouldn’t know very much at all.”
Although some argue that privacy must be sacrificed for the sake of security when it comes to surveillance, Snowden said that the two are not competing values and that the debate is really about liberty verses surveillance.
“When the government is seeking to expand its own liberties at the expense of the public’s, that should be something that alarms all of us,” he said.
Snowden and his actions have been the topic of passionate debate since 2013 when it was revealed that he had leaked information to several national and international news outlets. The news prompted some to praise Snowden for uncovering an unconstitutional practice and others to criticize him for the harm his revelations may have caused to U.S. intelligence efforts.
Tuesday was also not the first time Snowden and his actions were discussed in the Commonwealth Auditorium at William & Mary. At a campus event four years ago, Higgins asked W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, a former Secretary of Defense and director of the CIA, about the tension between security and privacy. Gates didn’t hesitate when he called Snowden a traitor.
“These revelations by Snowden have reignited the debate about how effective are these oversight institutions. And that’s a debate worth having,” Gates said, according to a 2013 W&M News article. “But the formula where a 25- or 30-year-old can disregard those institutions and take it upon himself to determine what should be released — and what should not be released — that’s a formula for chaos.”
In opening Tuesday afternoon’s discussion, Higgins noted that the W&M community values debate and is open to competing ideas. It is a sentiment that Wilkerson echoed in the midst of the discussion.
“The ultimate purpose of a university is to teach people to think critically,” he said.
While acknowledging that Tuesday’s speaker has been the subject of strong opinions from both sides, William & Mary does not regulate the speakers students invite to campus (in person or electronically), said Chief Communications Officer Brian Whitson.
“William & Mary has a long tradition of allowing students to invite speakers to campus who they want to hear from and those speakers represent a broad range of perspectives and opinions,” Whitson said. “This was an event organized by students with someone they wanted to hear from and ask questions.”
Higgins said Tuesday was an important conversation for students.
“Students needed to hear from someone doing things they will be asked to do when they go into careers in government,” Higgins said. “Snowden is an example and probably the best example in our generation of someone who raises questions about ethics and citizenship and national security and information privacy.”
Snowden encouraged the audience to translate that thinking into action by speaking up when they see injustice.
“You have a voice, ladies and gentlemen, and that voice matters,” Snowden said. “It is not enough to believe in something. If you want to see a better world, you have to make it. Don’t believe in something. Stand for something. Use your voice.”