Why Edward Snowden Showed Up to CES as a Robot, and What He Had to Say

While technologies such as smartphones, the internet, and social networks offer opportunities for more direct social action than ever before—they also amplify the power and impact of governmental institutions, political organizations and even terrorist operations.

Progress nowadays may be as double-edged a sword as ever.

Standing on the edge of ethics and law is one of the most controversial privacy activists in the world today: Edward Snowden. His rise on the geopolitical stage represents a shift in power occurring globally that is changing the relationship between private citizens and governments.

While arguing geographical borders may increasingly be becoming irrelevant, Snowden, a political exile from the US, demonstrated his point by visiting CES 2016 in Las Vegas via a Beam telepresence robot to perform a live interview with Peter Diamandis.

“What we are doing—project[ing] presence across geographical space without actually leaving any record of travel—[allows] truly private experiences, private conversation,” Snowden said.

And more to the point, perhaps, as he later noted, “The FBI can’t arrest a robot.”

Though the interview ranged a variety of tech-oriented topics, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence, a major focus was on how the future of connected technology will impact the growing number of stakeholders now influencing global affairs.

“Your rights matter, and you never know when you’re going to use them. They’re collective, not [just] individual,” Snowden said. “If you say I don’t really care about this because it’s not immediately valuable to me right now in this moment, you’re trying to give away a right that is critical to huge amounts of vulnerable people in all kinds of different situations. When your rights are lost for a moment, they’re lost for a generation.”

As he has in the past, Snowden emphasized how emerging platforms will generate mass amounts of data about everyone; boundlessly, permanently, and for sometimes questionable uses without regard. While some tools are convenient in the short term, long-term vulnerabilities will affect privacy advocates, security experts, extremists and everyday citizens alike.

Is the tradeoff of privacy for convenience a reasonable one?

“If you want to be able share something about yourself, you should be entitled to make that decision. You should never be forced to make that decision…,” Snowden suggested. “We’ll have to think a lot more about: How do we manage consent? How do we make sure people understand how their information is being used and that ultimately serves their purposes? Fundamentally, we want to make sure the services and devices that people pay for are serving them — rather than being used against them.”

But the future need not be as terrible or repressive as it may sometimes seem, Snowden argued, “…as long as we remember our values, and we make sure we defend them — not just against our enemies — but against those in power at home who may reflexively feel that they need to restrict our freedoms.”

While many critical issues have yet to fully arrive or be properly addressed, these conversations help paint the broad strokes. Because we’re increasingly connected socially, average citizens have a larger role in decisions that have in the past only been made via major power structures.

Ultimately, Snowden offered a hopeful and optimistic view of the years ahead:

“Terrorism is a real threat, but it is not an existential threat. There are simply not enough of them. They do not have enough capability to deal with all of us who are educated, capable, driven. And we have [a] mission — which is to make a better world.”

Fear not, the future is ours to create.

Image Credit: Eric Fischer/FlickrCC

Andrew J. O'Keefe II
Andrew J. O'Keefe IIhttp://www.andrewjokeefe.com/
Andrew operates as a media producer and archivist. Generating backups of critical cultural data, he has worked across various industries — entertainment, art, and technology — telling emerging stories via recording and distribution.
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