The Snowbot — a $14,000 Beampro telepresence robot that Edward Snowden pilots from Moscow — is becoming a fixture at conferences, meetings, and in the halls of power in the USA, where Snowden is a frequent invited guest.
Snowden views the Snowbot work — as well as his appearances on giant monitors (which he always begins with a Big Brother joke) — as a continuation of the step he took when he risked his freedom by coming forward with disclosures about the extent of illegal mass surveillance practiced by the USA and its "Five Eyes" allies in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
This is apparently driving America's spooks — who have publicly, volubly fantasized about torturing him to death — bananas.
Snowden, who cut his teeth in online forums and graduated to being a pain-the-ass amateur constitutional scholar/gadfly in at the NSA and CIA, uses the Snowbot to have one-on-one debates with some of America's most powerful apologists for mass surveillance, and consistently trounces them. Then he goes on to have one-on-one interactions with the bot, which he's become an expert in, figuring out how to mimic eye-contact and even respond to hugs.
He's working with his ACLU attorney, Ben Wizner, on a clemency campaign that pins its hopes on Obama making a grand gesture this autumn, on his way out of office. But he's also using the robot to consult with some of the world's leading cryptographers and technologists to harden the internet against surveillance, drawing on both his technical skills and his insider knowledge of state-level threats to refine their tools and make them suited for purpose.
Snowden believes that officials like Litt are merely trying to scare the public into acquiescence. Last October, the two had a showdown of sorts when they spoke back-to-back at a conference at Bard College. "Each time we have an election, it's like another round of a game," Snowden told the students. Using a livecasting program designed for gamers that allows him to project illustrations, he filled the auditorium screen with an image of George W. Bush shaking hands with Obama. "The policies of one president become the policies of another." Then he played a video clip of the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki's son, a 16-year-old American citizen killed by a drone strike in Yemen. He cited a leaked 2015 email in which Litt addressed the hostile legislative climate, recommending "keeping our options open" for a change "in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement."
"Surveillance is ultimately not about safety," Snowden said. "Surveillance is about power. Surveillance is about control."
Litt opened his remarks by joking that he could sympathize with the act that went on Ed Sullivan after the Beatles. "I can hear the NSA's opinion any day," one student stage-whispered, as he and many others got up to head for the exits. Litt called after them, saying he was "disappointed" with the disdain "given that this is an academic environment." He then elaborated on the ominous sentiment expressed in his email.
[Andrew Rice/New York Magazine]