On the evening of March 22, the lawyer for Edward Snowden — known as the “most significant whistleblower in the 21st century” — spoke at Hart House. Human rights lawyer Robert Tibbo presented a keynote lecture on modern state surveillance, Snowden’s revelations, and whistleblowing to a sold-out crowd at the Hart House Great Hall.

The event was organized by the Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee in partnership with the U of T chapter of Amnesty International.

Immediately following the keynote was a panel discussion which included Tibbo, Citizen Lab fellow and lawyer Kate Robertson, York University Assistant Professor Jonathan Obar, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Director of Privacy, Technology, and Surveillance Project Brenda McPhail. The panel discussion was moderated by second-year Rotman Commerce student Megan Siyi Liu.

Snowden had worked as a contractor for the United States Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency before releasing a trove of confidential documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill. The documents outlined a mass surveillance program established by Five Eyes countries without the knowledge or consent of their citizenry. The Five Eyes countries include Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Tibbo received his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from McGill University before moving to Australia and studying law at the University of Auckland. Tibbo moved to Hong Kong to practice law as a barrister, focusing on constitutional law and the intersection of administrative law with human rights. In 2010, Tibbo began taking on pro bono work for asylum seekers and refugee claimants.

In an interview with The Varsity, Tibbo said that “a lot of the most interesting cases involve individuals who are extremely vulnerable to falling between the cracks and [when the] government has done something horrific to them.”


Snowden’s leaks

In the early morning of June 10, 2013, Tibbo received an urgent call regarding an American whistleblower in Hong Kong.

The first step Tibbo took in assisting Snowden was removing him from his hotel and bringing him to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish a refugee status determination claim. Without this claim, there would be no record of Snowden’s status.

However, the logistics of getting him to the UNHCR proved difficult as hundreds of reporters swarmed Hong Kong hotels and government officials began to search for him.

“Mr. Snowden was the most wanted man in the world,” Tibbo said. “It was the largest manhunt of the 21st century.”


Snowden refugees

Once Snowden had his claim, Tibbo faced the challenge of deciding where to temporarily shelter him. It was necessary to take Snowden “underground” because of the possibility of security cameras capturing footage of him.

Ultimately, Tibbo asked his other clients — who were also refugees — to temporarily house Snowden. Tibbo explained that these clients had similar experiences with persecution.

Tibbo said the family’s decision to help Snowden was “an enormously compassionate act.”

The families who helped Snowden during that time have come to be known both as ‘Snowden refugees’ and Snowden’s ‘guardian angels.’ The families faced persecution from Hong Kong authorities for helping Snowden and, under the legal counsel of Tibbo, are currently seeking asylum in Canada and are waiting approval from the Canadian government.

Three days after Tibbo spoke at U of T, Canada announced that it would be accepting the first two of the refugees, a woman and her daughter. They landed in Toronto on March 25.

Tibbo has worked on these cases for seven years. A website and movement titled “For the Refugees” was established in 2016 to help their cases.


Modern surveillance systems

When discussing surveillance, Tibbo cited Snowden’s disclosures, noting how governments have “no legitimate reason” to collect the amount of data that they do. By doing so, governments are misusing communications technology, “attacking democratic institutions,” and ultimately “approaching authoritarian rule.”

This comes at a time when technologies are “permeating the fabric of our society and our lives,” Tibbo said.

Tibbo continued to say that governments are “gathering our data, using it, and drawing plans behind closed doors. When decision makers are doing things behind closed doors without transparency or accountability, they behave badly.”

Tibbo also addressed the influence of corporations in surveillance activities, noting how most people did not realize or consent to bringing “technology companies into our homes.”

Tibbo remarked that when people respond to the existence of state surveillance by saying, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ it truly means that people feel powerless and fearful.


Protecting yourself

During the panel discussion, Tibbo and the other speakers addressed ways in which people can protect themselves online. Obar says the future of digital privacy involves “meaningful consent” with users.

McPhail suggested voters support political candidates who reflect their values, adding that “we shouldn’t sleepwalk into surveillance.”

In the wake of increased calls for digital privacy and corporate transparency, Robertson said users should keep demanding and expecting privacy.

For Tibbo, encryption is a good tool to use in addition to Tor and Signal. Speaking to The Varsity, he also noted that developing good habits around privacy and security are also important.

Lastly, Tibbo recommends a more traditional form of communication: “face to face.”