“One of the things that motivated me to come forward was to…see the gap, the distance between what the public understood the laws…to mean…and also what our capabilities were, and how those were being applied,” Edward Snowden said.
Snowden was giving the keynote speech of Open Rights Group’s OrgCon 2019 on 13 July 2019, and he was at pains to emphasise to his listeners the importance of public understanding and awareness of the limits on digital freedom and privacy. “People think of 2013 as a surveillance story, but it was really a democracy story.”
Proponents of increasing democratic accountability would be pleased to see Snowden’s words reaching the public. The Open Rights Group reported a record-setting seven hundred or more attendees. Equally impressive were the number and quality of discussions and workshops available, all with the overarching purpose of educating participants about violations of privacy rights online. The Secret Life of Your Data workshops, for example, traced personal data from its collection on personal devices to the edges of the internet ecosystem, and a discussion of Dragonfly outlined the implications of allowing Google to create a censored search engine for China.
As participants in these workshops and presentations explored data exchanges and databases of trackers, they wanted to know what they could do to protect themselves. Here OrgCon’s offerings, united by their focus and thoughtfulness, began to diverge. Services like the Crypto Bar, which cheerfully urged attendees to “reclaim your rights online!”, coexisted uneasily with presentations illustrating the power and pervasiveness of the system opposing any individual wishing to do so. In the main lecture hall, a panel discussed the reality of facial recognition in the UK, while another space advertised an exploration of government power over children in “A Safeguarding Dystopia”.
Snowden was aware of the tension inherent in such seeming contradictions. However, he was convinced that a committed group of individuals could resolve it. During the Q&A period, he was asked by an audience member what hope there could be of securing data privacy and internet freedoms when the internet’s younger users were apathetic about both. He replied that understanding your rights online is difficult and time-consuming, so the goal of activists cannot be a universal understanding of the system which deprives internet users of their rights. Instead, it must be a new system which will protect those rights, even for the uninformed. For OrgCon’s attendees, informed by the day’s excellent events, leading the way to such a system might be the best self-protection.