Edward Snowden warns against government overreach in video conference at Hopkins

"Is this something that's truly necessary?" Edward Snowden asked about FBI's request to Apple.

College senior Dan Swann stepped on stage, approached the laptop, and spoke to Russia. "Hello, Mr. Snowden. It's an honor."

Behind him, the Johns Hopkins University auditorium was packed, some 1,300 who came to hear the former government contractor speak live from across the world.

"What can future engineers do," asked Swann, a computer-science major from Annapolis, "to be sure the products they work on cannot be used to violate civil liberties?"

Edward Snowden paused. "That's a good one."

Hopkins students spent months arranging the live video conference Wednesday night with Snowden.

In 2013, he leaked documents revealing the National Security Agency's massive telephone- and Internet-surveillance program. At Hopkins, he was greeted with applause.

"He's a controversial figure," said Mona Jia, a junior who helped organize the video conference. "This was an important and timely topic."

The conference came hours after the debate between privacy and security again made national news. Apple's chief executive said Wednesday his company would challenge a court order demanding the company's help in the San Bernardino attack investigation. Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook said the FBI requested the company develop software to hack into an iPhone used by the gunman.

Snowden said such software would set an overreaching precedent. The FBI had other tools, Snowden told the crowd, to investigate the shooting.

"Is this something that's truly necessary?" Snowden asked. "Or is it a measure of convenience?"

Snowden has been living in Russia, where he's been granted political asylum.

In the fall, students began efforts to enlist him as a speaker in the Foreign Affairs Symposium. They consulted Hopkins attorneys and reached Snowden through his attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Jack Laylin, a junior international studies major and one of the organizers. Laylin declined to say if and how much they paid Snowden.

"Students are politically apathetic," he said. "This is an opportunity for them to express they do care."

Videos and photos were prohibited during the conference.

Snowden spoke against what he called government overreach, the widespread collection of information on Americans.

Further, he spoke against the secrecy of government security programs. He downplayed his own celebrity status, while saying whistleblowers "light a match and burn their entire lives to the ground. That's what it requires."

In the crowd, Professor Danielle Citron, of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, wondered: Was it worth it?

"What he thought would happen, did it really come to pass?" she said she would have asked Snowden. "Did he hope for more? Does he feel disappointed?"

Hope Dancy, a senior political-science major from New Jersey, said the leaks threatened U.S. troops.

"He was really naive," she said. "It's pretty shameful that he sought asylum. If you're going to leak, take the hit for it."

Snowden told the crowd he would return if U.S. authorities guaranteed a fair trial.

"They responded with a letter from the attorney general that promised I would not be tortured," he said.

The crowd laughed.

"So let's say that's still a work in progress."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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