Edward Snowden talks permanence, privacy, and progress

On Monday, January 27th, cybersecurity expert and whistleblower Edward Snowden drew a standing ovation from a packed auditorium at the SwissTech Convention Center on the EPFL campus, where he delivered a keynote address via videoconference as part of the fourth Applied Machine Learning Days (AMLD).
Edward Snowden speaks via videoconference with EPFL's Marcel Salathé at EPFL's AMLD conference © samueldevantery.com

The former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer and National Security Agency (NSA) consultant Edward Snowden spoke from Moscow, where he is seeking asylum from the US government following his divulgence of classified information about the NSA’s use of mass surveillance in 2013. Though the title of his talk was “Surveillance in the age of AI”, his moving discourse addressed freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy in addition to online privacy.

A data collection problem

Snowden began with an excerpt from his memoir, Permanent Record (Metropolitan Books, 2019), describing the explosion of data collection and “surveillance capitalism” that upended the “pioneering spirit” of the early internet, ultimately driving him to come forward. He argued that today, legal instruments like the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) are largely toothless, giving examples of how companies like Facebook are circumventing them without penalty.

"The problem with the GDPR is in the name: we don’t have a data protection problem, but a data collection problem. Consent is one of the problems we're struggling with the most.” In addition to the challenges of anonymization, he added that the permanence of digital data is in itself a threat to free society: “We're too afraid to speak up for fear of permanent record.”

In a Q&A with AMLD co-organizer Marcel Salathé, a professor in the EPFL School of Computer and Communication Sciences and School of Life Sciences, Snowden answered the million-dollar question: what can we do to protect our privacy in an age of surveillance?

“Anyone who uses technology needs to understand basic principles of how a network operates,” Snowden answered. “How does your smartphone make a call? How does your computer find a webpage? One of the fundamental things making privacy violations possible is the invisibility of network connections. We need to make these things visible and controllable.

AMLD around the world

Now in its fourth edition, AMLD will expand beyond Switzerland for the first time this year, with a Russian edition planned for August 2020 at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech).

“AMLD has worked really well in this ecosystem, and we want to keep growing it with international participation. But we also want to bring AMLD to other universities all over the world, where they could benefit from having their own,” says Salathé.

In addition to a global network of conferences, Salathé adds that the AMLD organizers also hope to see an expansion of the Swiss conference, which will continue to be based at EPFL.

“We are in discussion with the city of Lausanne to have multiple adjacent events during the main conference. In the future, we may even have satellite events across the whole Lemanic region.”