An official from the US National Security Agency and whistle-blower Edward Snowden were on the same stage at Harvard University Friday — though not at the same time. And Snowden was actually about 4,500 miles away in Moscow, where he has been holed up since becoming a wanted man in 2013 after leaking classified NSA documents to the media.
But there he was, smiling and jovial, on a large video screen, participating in a discussion of “Privacy in a Networked World” at the Cambridge school’s Science Center. During a conversation with security specialist Bruce Schneier, Snowden detailed what he considers criminal activities by the NSA, including cyberspying on the political leaders of countries friendly with the United States and eavesdropping on people without oversight from Congress.
“The NSA is virtually unregulated,” the former NSA employee said. “People are not bad people, but a culture for impunity develops.”
It wasn’t anything he hadn’t said before, but there was something unusual about the video appearance. Listening in the audience — and sometimes wearing a smile that rivaled Snowden’s — was John DeLong, the NSA’s director of commercial solutions. DeLong was the secretive agency’s director of compliance during Snowden’s time there.
But anyone hoping for a confrontation between the two men was disappointed. By the time DeLong stepped onstage to deliver a passionate rebuttal, Snowden had logged off.
Regardless, the scene was remarkable: Not so long ago, the participation of an NSA official in a public event focused on privacy and security would have been unthinkable. It was apparent that the government agency no longer believes it can avoid engaging in a broader conversation about such issues.
“I don’t want to turn this into a point-by-point, Oxford-style debate,” said DeLong, who attended physics lectures in same lecture hall when he was a Harvard student. “But I think it’s important to correct the record and not think of the NSA as doing things that were not authorized.”
That didn’t mean he was ready to engage on every subject. When a participant in the symposium — organized by Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational Science — asked who did authorize spying on US allies, DeLong evaded the question with the skill of a trained politician, essentially saying it was not for him to talk about.
The symposium also featured speakers from Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Sage Bionetworks who discussed the current state — and future — of privacy in a world connected by computers of all kinds.
“Personal information is the currency by which we buy our Internet,” said Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.
In fact, the Internet was designed to promote surveillance, said Schneier (and advertising, as some on the event’s Twitter feed quickly added).
As the day went on, the question of whether it was possible to build an Internet that offered more privacy safeguards became a major theme. “Protecting privacy today is more an art than a science,” DeLong said. “The science and engineering of privacy [is] the key challenge of our time.”