Edward Snowden tells universities Trump's firing of FBI director is alarming

The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to fire FBI director James Comey is alarming and part of a global shift away from the democratic oversight of powerful people, Edward Snowden said Tuesday as he warned Prairie university crowds about privacy issues.

Exiled U.S. whistleblower spoke to university crowds in Manitoba and Alberta from Russia

Edward Snowden broadcasted a presentation to three universities in the prairies from Moscow, Russia where he lives in exile. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to fire FBI director James Comey is alarming and part of a global shift away from the democratic oversight of powerful people, Edward Snowden said Tuesday as he warned Prairie university crowds about privacy issues.

The U.S.intelligence contractor-turned whistleblower spoke Tuesday night via teleconference from Russia — where he lives in exile — to sold-out crowds at the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University in Manitoba and the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. Overflow rooms had to be opened at both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Lethbridge, with the crowd totalling about 600 in the Alberta city.

Snowden talked about the importance of prioritizing the right to privacy and other issues that have emerged since he leaked American classified documents in 2013. 

He expressed concern with the line he's heard countless times in the past few years — that sacrificing privacy is worth it for increased security. 

"We should always be aware that we don't get to choose what we are to be protected from," he said. 

Privacy in a digital age

Hushed laughter broke out in the crowd in Lethbridge when one student asked how someone could theoretically endeavour to keep all of their phone calls and internet habits private in light of what has been revealed about mass surveillance in the last four years. 

While Snowden was able to offer some security tips, he said it was most important that people keep talking about privacy rights as something that matters, even if they don't know how to fix it themselves. 

He also suggested banning the phrase "national security" as an excuse for abandoning those rights in the first place, "because they mean very different things to politicians than they do to you and I."

"Saying things such as 'I don't care about privacy because I have nothing to hide,' is no different than saying, 'I don't care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say,'" Snowden said. 

And that's something that really struck a chord with some students in the audience. 

"I think it was particularly interesting how Mr. Snowden framed rights as outside of the national law. We normally think about this as an American problem, or a Canadian problem … It was very thought provoking," said political science student Gabriel Cassie. 

Cassie said he isn't particularly familiar with Snowden's story, only having followed some headlines back in 2013 and the proceeding years, but he said hearing him speak has made him much more interested and engaged.

Trump move 'calls into question' commitment to laws

Earlier on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey. 

Snowden referred to Comey's firing as alarming and part of a global shift away from democratic controls over powerful people.

He said the firing is worrisome because Comey was conducting a wide-ranging probe into the Trump administration, including the possible influence of Russia in last year's U.S. election.

"This calls into question our commitment to the rule of law," Snowden said.

"It's not to say that what the president has done is illegal, but we should not lose sight of the fact that … the president of the United States has just fired the man in charge of a criminal investigation into the actions of his administration and his associates."

Trump's move is part of a global "creeping disrespect for the public and their rights," Snowden added.

Breaches of trust closer to home

Snowden also encouraged the crowd not to think of mass surveillance as an American problem. He pointed to the case of La Presse journalists being monitored by police in Quebec, as well as Winnipeg police's endeavours to secure more thorough surveillance equipment

"Rights exist to protect, it is only the vulnerable who truly need rights in the moment, right? But we have to recognize we can all be put in a position of vulnerability.… Social norms change, who's targeted today won't be targeted tomorrow."

Snowden quit his job as a contractor for the National Security Agency in 2013 and left the U.S. He worked with journalists to expose how the NSA conducted secret information-gathering programs and spied on the online activities of millions of people, Americans and abroad.

To some, he has become a heroic whistle blower who has exposed systemic government surveillance. To others, he is a traitor who has compromised U.S. security.

He has been charged with espionage in the U.S. and could face up to 30 years in prison if he ever returns.

With files from Canadian Press