We’re being watched, part 5 of 7: The Snowden Robot

This is a seven-part miniseries I’m doing on privacy and unauthorized surveillance in the digital age. Check out links to the other posts at the bottom.

Edward Snowden attends a conference while in exile

No individual has done more to highlight the excesses of unauthorized surveillance in the Western world than Edward Snowden. Given the government’s interest in silencing him, it is remarkable that today he is roaming freely in the United states.

Andrew Rice begins his story with a thrill:

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.

Snowden’s body in the back of the car, but his robot was. Edward Snowden’s lawyers have set him up with a BeamPro machine that looks like an Ipad on a five foot stick with wheels. Despite being a wanted man, the setup is allowing him to speak at a some 50 different conferences in the U.S. this year. He checked out the TriBeCa film festival, and toured the Whitney museum in New York.

What’s the purpose? On one level, it is a strategy of Snowden’s ACLU lawyers to get him home. They are “making the unimaginable seem mundane.” On a more philosophical level, writes Rice, Snowden “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.”

I just watched the documentary, CitizenFour, which profiles Snowden’s dramatic in-person meeting with reporters to out himself and reveal the NSA surveillance secrets. In the video, he was confident in two things. First, he felt sure he was doing the right thing. Second, he felt sure he would be forced to pay for it, with prison or worse. That he has not been caught is his own surprise. That he is able to continue to interact so publicly with the U.S. is a shock. “Snowden has managed to avoid the long arm of U.S. law enforcement by finding asylum in Russia,” writes Rice. “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.”

I have never interacted with someone through one of these telepresence robots, and I admit some skepticism about it. Seems like a gimmick. What’s the big deal with a computer on a stick? Is it that different from just having a video call? Apparently Rice feels it is.

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.

Plus Snowden can control the device himself and independently move about a room and look at different things. The whole experience, apparently makes a distinctive impact:

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.

If this miniseries has been about the ways we are being watched. Snowden is showing there’s still a way to set your own privacy terms. Unfortunately in involves living in Moscow under state asylum and showing up places only as a computer on a stick.

Read widely. Read wisely.


Edward Snowden’s Strangely Free Life — As a Robot by Andrew Rice in New York Magazine (35 minute read)

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