Edward Snowden’s strangely free life – As a robot

[This story from New York Magazine describes the interesting ways Edward Snowden uses telepresence to interact with the world and how people in the world respond, as well as his views on the emergence of virtual reality. This is an abridged version of the long original, which includes several more images. –Matthew]

Snowden at the Whitney

[Image: Attending “Astro Noise” at the Whitney. Photo: Henrik Moltke]

I, Snowden

For a man accused of espionage and effectively exiled in Russia, Edward Snowden is also, strangely, free.

By Andrew Rice
June 26, 2016

Edward Snowden lay on his back in the rear of a Ford Escape, hidden from view and momentarily unconscious, as I drove him to the Whitney museum one recent morning to meet some friends from the art world. Along West Street, clotted with traffic near the memorial pools of the World Trade Center, a computerized voice from my iPhone issued directions via the GPS satellites above. Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union, was sitting shotgun, chattily recapping his client’s recent activities. For a fugitive wanted by the FBI for revealing classified spying programs who lives in an undisclosed location in Russia, Snowden was managing to maintain a rather busy schedule around Manhattan.

A couple nights earlier, at the New York Times building, Wizner had watched Snowden trounce Fareed Zakaria in a public debate over computer encryption. “He did Tribeca,” the lawyer added, referring to a surprise appearance at the film festival, where Snowden had drawn gasps as he crossed the stage at an event called the Disruptive Innovation Awards. Wizner stopped himself mid-sentence, laughing at the absurdity of his pronoun choice: “He!” Behind us, Snowden stared blankly upward, his face bouncing beneath a sheet of Bubble Wrap as the car rattled over the cobblestones of the Meatpacking District.

Snowden’s body might be confined to Moscow, but the former NSA computer specialist has hacked a work-around: a robot. If he wants to make his physical presence felt in the United States, he can connect to a wheeled contraption called a BeamPro, a flat-screen monitor that stands atop a pair of legs, five-foot-two in all, with a camera that acts as a swiveling Cyclops eye. Inevitably, people call it the “Snowbot.” The avatar resides at the Manhattan offices of the ACLU, where it takes meetings and occasionally travels to speaking engagements. (You can Google pictures of the Snowbot posing with Sergey Brin at TED.) Undeniably, it’s a gimmick: a tool in the campaign to advance Snowden’s cause — and his case for clemency — by building his cultural and intellectual celebrity. But the technology is of real symbolic and practical use to Snowden, who hopes to prove that the internet can overcome the power of governments, the strictures of exile, and isolation. It all amounts to an unprecedented act of defiance, a genuine enemy of the state carousing in plain view.

We unloaded the Snowbot in front of the Whitney, where a small group had gathered to meet us for a private viewing of a multimedia exhibition by the filmmaker Laura Poitras. It was Poitras whom Snowden first contacted, anonymously, in 2013, referring to the existence of a surveillance system “whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.” Their relationship resulted in explosive news articles and a documentary, Citizenfour — work that won a Pulitzer and an Oscar and incited global outrage. But the disclosures came at a high price for their source. If Snowden couldn’t come home, Poitras at least wanted him to share vicariously in the experience of her Whitney show, “Astro Noise,” which took its name from an encrypted file of documents he had spirited out of the secret NSA site where he worked in Hawaii. So she had arranged a personal tour.

Outside an eighth-floor gallery, a crowd of Poitras’s collaborators and Whitney curators clustered around the Snowbot as a white circle twirled on its monitor. Then, suddenly, the screen awoke and Snowden was there.

“Hey!” Wizner said, and the group erupted in awkward laughter. The famous fugitive was wearing a gray T-shirt, his face pallid and unshaven. (He calls himself “an indoor cat.”) His voice sounded choppy, but some fiddling resolved the problem, and Poitras, soft-spoken and clad in black, made introductions. Snowden’s preternaturally eloquent Hong Kong hotel-room encounter with Poitras and the Guardian journalists investigating his leaks formed the core of Citizenfour, but even some of those who worked on the documentary had never met its protagonist. One of the cinematographers came forward and wrapped him in a hug.

“I don’t have hands,” Snowden apologized. “The most I can do is maybe …”

He scooted forward.

Sitting in the same homemade studio he uses for his frequent speaking engagements, Snowden could control the robot’s movements with his computer, maneuvering with uncanny agility, swiveling to make eye contact with people as they spoke to him.

Poitras began with the show’s opening piece, a colorful array of prints that resembled modern abstracts but were actually found objects: visualizations of intercepted satellite signals that turned up in the vast trove of NSA documents. “The whole show, there’s a lot of deep research that’s going on behind it,” she said. She led Snowden into a darkened gallery, where a spooky ambient soundscape was playing over video footage of a U.S. military interrogation. Momentarily disoriented, he careened into a bench. But Snowden quickly figured out how to navigate in the dark. When he came to parts of the exhibit that required complicated movements — lying on a platform to take in the watchful night sky over Yemen, or craning to look at an NSA document through a slit in the wall — the humans hoisted him into position.

“Wow, okay, I see it,” Snowden said as one of Poitras’s researchers held him up to view footage of a drone strike’s aftermath. “This is a surreal experience for a number of reasons.”

When the tour was over, Snowden held an impromptu discussion, likening his decision to become a dissident to a risky artistic choice. “There’s always that moment where you step out and there’s nothing underneath you,” he said. “You hope that you can build that airplane on the way down, or if you don’t, that the world will catch you. In my case, I’ve been falling ever since.” Still, Snowden said he had no regrets. “I do have to say,” he told Poitras, “that I will be forever grateful that you took me seriously.”

As usual, though, when the questions turned to the details of his non-robotic existence, Snowden remained courteously evasive. “What’s a day in the life now?” asked Nicholas Holmes, the Whitney’s general counsel. “Do you go for walks in the park?”

“Well,” the Snowbot replied, “I go for walks in the Whitney, apparently.”

The idea that Snowden is still walking the American streets, virtually or otherwise, is infuriating to his former employers in the U.S.-intelligence community. Its leaders no longer make ominous jokes about wanting to put him on a drone kill list — as former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden did in 2013 — but they still vilify him and maintain that he did real harm to America’s safety and international standing. While Snowden’s leaks revealed the NSA’s controversial and possibly unconstitutional bulk collection of domestic internet traffic and telephone metadata, they also exposed technical details about many other classified activities, including overseas surveillance programs, secret diplomatic arrangements, and operations targeting legitimate adversaries. The spy agencies warn that the public doesn’t comprehend the degree of damage done to their protective capabilities, even as events like the Orlando nightclub massacre demonstrate the destructive reach of terrorist ideology. The fallout from Snowden’s actions may have prompted a debate about security and privacy that even President Obama acknowledges “will make us stronger,” but there has been no such reassessment, at least officially, of Snowden himself. He still faces charges of violating the federal Espionage Act, crimes that could carry a decades-long prison sentence.

When Snowden first revealed the NSA’s surveillance — and his own identity — to the world three years ago this month, there was little reason to believe that he would be in a position to communicate much of anything in the future. The last person to leak classified information of such magnitude, Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. (Manning, who was held in solitary confinement while awaiting trial, has largely communicated to the public through letters.) Yet so far, to his own surprise, Snowden has managed to avoid the long arm of U.S. law enforcement by finding asylum in Russia. Leaving aside, at least for the moment, the ethics of his actions (and the internal contradictions of his residence in an authoritarian state ruled by a former KGB operative), Snowden’s case is, in fact, a study in the boundless freedoms the internet enables. It has allowed him to become a champion of civil liberties and an adviser to the tech community — which has lately become radicalized against surveillance — and, in the process, the world’s most famous privacy advocate. After he appeared on Twitter last September — his first message was “Can you hear me now?” — he quickly amassed some two million followers.

“I feel like we’re sort of dancing around the leadership conversation,” Snowden said to me recently as I sat with him at the ACLU offices. Over the past few months, we have encountered one another with some regularity, and while I can’t claim to know him as a flesh-and-blood person, I’ve seen his intellect in its native habitat. He is at once exhaustively loquacious and reflexively self-protective, prone to hide behind smooth oratory. But occasionally, he has let down his guard and talked like a human being. “I’m able to actually have influence on the issues that I care about, the same influence I didn’t have when I was sitting at the NSA,” Snowden told me. He claims that many of his former colleagues would agree that the programs he exposed were wrongfully intrusive. “But they have no voice, they have no clout,” he said. “One of the weirder things that’s come out of this is the fact that I can actually occupy that role.” Even as the White House and the intelligence chiefs brand him a criminal, he says, they are constantly forced to contend with his opinions. “They’re saying they still don’t like me — tut-tut, very bad — but they recognize that it was the right decision, that the public should have known about this.”

Needless to say, it is initially disorienting to hear messages of usurpation emitted, with a touch of Daft Punk–ish reverb, from a $14,000 piece of electronic equipment. Upon meeting the Snowbot, people tend to become flustered — there he is, that face you know, looking at you. That feeling, familiar to anyone who’s spotted a celebrity in a coffee shop, is all the more strange when the celebrity is supposed to be banished to the other end of the Earth. And yet he is here, occupying the same physical space. The technology of “telepresence” feels different from talking to a computer screen; somehow, the fact that Snowden is standing in front of you, looking straight into your eyes, renders the experience less like enhanced telephoning and more like primitive teleporting. Snowden sometimes tries to put people at ease by joking about his limitations, saying humans have nothing to fear from robots so long as we have stairs and Wi-Fi dead zones in elevators. Still, he is quite good at maneuvering on level ground, controlling the robot’s movements with his keyboard like a gamer playing Minecraft. The eye contact, however, is an illusion—Snowden has learned to look straight into his computer’s camera instead of focusing on the faces on his screen.

Here’s the really odd thing, though: After a while, you stop noticing that he is a robot, just as you have learned to forget that the disembodied voice at your ear is a phone. Snowden sees this all the time, whether he is talking to audiences in auditoriums or holding meetings via videoconference. “There’s always that initial friction, that moment where everybody’s like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ but then it melts away,” Snowden told me, and after that, “regardless of the fact that the FBI has a field office in New York, I can be hanging out in New York museums.” The technology feels irresistible, inevitable. He’s the first robot I ever met; I doubt he’ll be the last.

Wizner, the head of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, says that Snowden asked him to do some research on telepresence in their first conversation, back when he was still very much on the lam. Now that his situation has stabilized — at least for the time being — he and Snowden’s small coterie of advisers are discussing ways they might use it for a widening range of purposes. Glenn Greenwald, one of Snowden’s original journalistic collaborators, jokingly talks about taking the Snowbot on the road. “I would love to let it loose in the parking lot of Fort Meade,” where the NSA is headquartered, he said. “Or to randomly go into grocery stores.” More seriously, Snowden’s advisers are in discussions about a research fellowship at a major American university. Already, the Snowbot has twice taken road trips to Princeton University, where he has participated in wide-ranging discussions about the NSA’s capabilities with a group of renowned academic computer-security experts, rolling up to cryptographers during coffee breaks and dutifully posing for selfies.

For larger gatherings, Snowden usually dispenses with the robot, addressing audiences from giant screens. (He often opens with an ironic reference to Big Brother.) He is scheduled to make more than 50 such appearances around the world this year, earning speaking fees that can reach more than $25,000 per appearance, though many speeches are pro bono. Besides allowing Snowden to make a good living, his virtual travels on the public-lecture circuit are part of a concerted campaign to situate him within a widening zone of political acceptability. “One of the things we were trying to do is to normalize him,” says Greenwald. “Normalize his life, normalize his presence.” In 2014, Snowden joined Poitras and Greenwald on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit, and last year he was elected chairman. It serves as a base for his advocacy and gives him access to a staff of technologists with whom he has been working on encryption projects, tools intended to allow journalists to communicate with “people that live in situations of threat” — in other words, people like Snowden himself.

Through a network of intermediaries — chief among them Wizner, who acts as his advocate, gatekeeper, and talent agent in the United States — Snowden is able to establish contact with almost anyone he desires to meet. “Ed’s now getting a lot of people on the phone, and it’s broadening his horizons,” says the author Ron Suskind, who has spoken with him on several occasions and recently had him lecture to a class he and Lawrence Lessig were teaching at Harvard Law School. Snowden also recently spoke to Amal Clooney’s law class at Columbia, starred in an episode of the Vice show on HBO, and published a manifesto on whistle-blowing on the Intercept, the website Poitras and Greenwald started with the billionaire Pierre Omidyar. And he has been maintaining his presence on Twitter, where he has been playfully talking up Oliver Stone’s forthcoming film, Snowden, which will star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

[snip]

He talks enthusiastically about virtual reality, which could soon supplant videoconferencing. “In five years this shit’s going to blow your mind,” Snowden told me. But he also sees potential dangers. “Suddenly, you’ve got every government in the world sitting in every meeting with you.”

Snowden is especially concerned about the monitoring power of Facebook, which acquired Oculus VR, the virtual-reality headset maker, for $2 billion. “What if Facebook has a copy of every memory that you ever made with someone else in these closed spaces?” he asked rhetorically. “We need to have space to ourselves, where nobody’s watching, nobody’s recording what we’re doing, nobody’s analyzing, nobody’s selling our experiences.”

It is clear that in virtual reality, Snowden sees more than just a work tool. “Right now, the technology is not quite there, but this is the first step,” the Snowbot told Peter Diamandis, the space entrepreneur and Singularity University co-founder, in an interview at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. “I have someone who is very close to me,” Snowden explained, “who was the victim of a serious car accident, and because of that they can’t travel.” Virtual reality could bring them together. Or it could allow him to visit home for Thanksgiving, overcoming what he calls “the tyranny of distance.”

[snip to end]

This entry was posted in Presence in the News. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*

  • Find Researchers

    Use the links below to find researchers listed alphabetically by the first letter of their last name.

    A | B | C | D | E | F| G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

css.php