Thousands of people lined up on the McGill campus Wednesday night waiting hours for a chance to be part of a videoconference with Edward Snowden.

(No, not the guy from Wikileaks, that’s Julien Assange and the only thing they have in common is an outstanding warrant against them for leaking information that the American government wanted kept secret. Snowden revealed that the government agency he worked for, the NSA, was spying on ordinary people on a scale that is neither legitimate nor legal. Basically, he proved that the US and many other countries, including Canada, engaged in mass surveillance. This means the government collects things like your phone records, your videos, your internet data, regardless of whether you are suspected of criminal activity or not.)

You might have missed the videoconference because you were among the thousands of understandably irritated fans left outside after both auditoriums were filled. Maybe you decided to go home after almost getting trampled for the third time in the line-up. Maybe you stayed home to watch the Cubs win.

We can’t recreate for you the distinct Rock Show feel of the overexcited line of people randomly cheering and periodically lurching forward in a panic to get inside, nor the barely concealed distress of the moderator as the video entirely cut off after random people started joining the video call.

The event did not run smoothly by any stretch of the imagination. Less than half of the people who lined up got inside the building. The conference was more than an hour late and the organizers managed to make the Google hangout public, which let to technical difficulties of frankly comedic proportions.

The fact that AMUSE/PSAC, the association representing 1000 members of support staff (most of them also students) at McGill was on strike and picketing arguably didn’t help matters. They became the prime target of the people’s frustration.

However, Edward Snowden himself came to their defense. He encouraged the people present to “hear them out” and reminded the audience of how hard being a dissident could be.

Mishaps aside, the conference happened and Snowden managed to say a lot of interesting things during it. Here are a few of them.

“Surveillance technologies have outpaced democratic control.”

Mass surveillance was a lesser problem when it wasn’t so easy. Not so long ago, it took a whole team to track one person’s activity. Now it’s the opposite. One lone government official can easily track the activities of many people.

The safeguards against the abuse of this power have not developed as quickly. This means that Intelligence agencies have less accountability than ever, while their powers keep growing thanks to evolving technologies.

“This inverts the traditional dynamic of private citizens and public officials into this brave new world of private officials and public citizens.”

This, Snowden says, is perfectly illustrated by the recent revelations about the SPVM spying on Patrick Lagacé. It was revealed earlier this week that the SPVM and the SQ have put the La Presse reporter and at least six other journalists under surveillance in an effort to discover their confidential sources. Snowden called it a “radical attack on the operations of a free press” and “a threat to the traditional model of our democracy.”

But the actions were authorized by the court. For Snowden, this is a sign that the “law is beginning to fail as a guarantor of our rights.”

Intelligence officials have overtly admitted that they would interpret the word of the law as loosely as they could to fit their interests, regardless of the actual intent of the law. In practice, this translates to using anti-terrorist measures to spy on environmental activists or getting access to a journalist’s internet data through a bill meant to fight cyber-bullying.

 “How do we ensure that we can trust intelligence agencies and officials to operate the law fairly? The answer is we can’t.”

We can’t trust intelligence officials to respect the spirit of the law; in fact, we can’t even trust them to respect the law itself, argued Snowden. Intelligence gathering programs have broken the law more than once, he reminded, often without consequences.

“What we can do,” he continued, “is put processes in place to ensure that we don’t have to.” He believes the key of these processes is an independent judicial authority able to oversee intelligence gathering operations and prosecute them when needed.

Canada actually has the weakest intelligence oversight out of any major western country.”

Now they’re not the most aggressive,” he conceded, “they don’t have the largest scale, but…. no one is really watching.”

The powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency (CSIS) have drastically increased in the last 15 years.  Law C-51, in particular, allows them to decide under any motive – however far-fetched – who constitutes a threat to national security and can thus be spied on. “The current Prime Minister did campaign to reform [C-51] and has failed to do so,” reminded Snowden.

The resources to oversee the CSIS, meanwhile, have decreased. The office of the Inspector General, which used to be a major part of it, was simply cut by Stephen Harper. This left the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) as the sole entity reporting to parliament on intelligence agencies. Its members are politically appointed.

CSIS is not the only intelligence gathering agency. The Canadian Border Security Agency, Global Affairs Canada and the National Defense Department all have the power to infringe on the rights of people, including the right to privacy, in certain circumstances and there is no credible authority overseeing them.

Retired Deputy Director of Foreign Intelligence Kurt Jensen pleaded for changing this situation in an article published last January. “Remember the old adage of who will watch the watchers? In Canada the answer is no one,” he wrote.

Since then, the government has started a process to review the oversight of intelligence gathering operations. Public hearings about the matter have started in September. Incidentally, this week, a judge ruled that the CSIS has been unwittingly conducting illegal mass surveillance since 2006.

The conference ended on an inspirational note, with Snowden addressing the students:

“We can have a very dark future or a very bright future but the ultimate determination of which fork in the road we take won’t be my decision, it won’t be the government decision, it will be your generation’s decision.”

Last month, Montreal’s international reputation took a hit thanks to Denis Coderre’s pit bull ban. This was amplified by celebrities speaking out against it. Now, we’ve caught the attention of famed whistleblower Edward Snowden, who tweeted this:

Snowden linked to a Montreal Gazette article about the Montreal Police (SPVM) spying on La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé’s cellphone. Lagacé had been looking into Escouade, the police task force dealing with street gangs and drugs, and the possibility that they were fabricating evidence.

The SPVM wanted to know who the journalist’s sources were. They asked for and received 24 warrants to monitor Lagacé iPhone, record its metadata and track his GPS location between January and July of this year.

These came out in the investigation into Costa Labos. The former head of Internal Affairs at the SPVM confirmed that they had been spying on Lagacé.

For Snowden, this story serves as a warning for journalists everywhere: if you don’t protect your phone data and GPS location, you may be putting your sources at risk. It’s also an indictment of the fundamental disrespect some police forces have for freedom of the press.

For Montreal, though, it means that once again, we are a shining example to the world of the wrong way to do things. And the ultimate culprit may just be the same one as the pit bull ban, or at least quite close.

As Alex Norris, City Councillor with Official Oppositon party Projet Montreal said in the same Gazette article Snowden tweeted: “We believe that it is inconceivable that an operation this sensitive would not have been approved by Philippe Pichet. If he wasn’t advised of this operation then it means he has lost control of his organization.”

If it goes as high as Pichet, then it’s not that far from the office of the man who appointed him: Mayor Denis Coderre. The sad thing is, spying on police is not out of character for Coderre, either.

For the second time in as many months, Montreal is in the international spotlight. And we don’t look good.

* Featured image of an SPVM officer going through a protester’s bag in July 2015 by Cem Ertekin

In what has to be one of the most fascinating must-watch pieces of television produced in the last little while, John Oliver interviews Edward Snowden in Russia for his HBO show Last Week Tonight and they end up talking dick pics. While that may seem like a waste to speak of something so trivial, it’s actually an attempt to contextualize the NSA spying program in a way that the “average” person who doesn’t know or care about the Snowden story can relate to, showing why they should be afraid of a wide-sweeping surveillance state.

This is actually part of a hilarious/informative (what has become the hallmark of Oliver’s show) segment on the upcoming renewal of the US Patriot Act. If you have the time, you should really watch the whole segment (33 mins), which you can below. But you can also skip ahead to the Snowden interview. it starts at 13:40

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin passed anti-gay legislation, the free world has responded with outrage. Organizations such as Pride House International have demanded boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and restaurants and nightclubs owners have poured Russian vodka down the drain in solidarity with the LGBT community. Meanwhile, US-Russian relations have sunk to their worst levels since the relationship between Kennedy and Khrushchev, which culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently Obama announced he may not attend the next major summit with Russia. Though this mainly theatrical move is designed to protest Russia granting America’s most sought after spy, Edward Snowden, temporary asylum, it also addresses a series of cold winds blowing in from Moscow, the incarceration of female punk trio Pussy Riot, Putin arming Syrian rebels and the anti-LGBT law among them.

Putin Pussy Riot portrait.

Obama may have miscalculated. Despite America’s own deficiencies upholding LGBT rights, the US represents the most powerful state partner of LGBT communities. Severing dialogue with Russia will not resolve the issues.

Russia is a global superpower. Its government operates with near impunity, is heavy-handed in subverting dissent from its citizens and censoring and suppressing free media. This perpetuates Russia’s tyranny indefinitely. Therefore, without US dialogue, there is no negotiation or solution. Russia’s LGBT community would be voiceless.

Unless the world boycotts the Sochi games (no country has done so officially yet), asking individual athletes to sacrifice their place to compete would be asking them to sacrifice the prime of their youths. Like governments ending diplomacy, individual athletes not appearing at the games to protest would end the conversation. Olympic coverage of the issue would drift or be silenced, like Tibet’s protests at Beijing 2011.

Economic sanctions and cutting US tourism to Russia is also insufficient. Though Russia’s economy is export-based, many countries rely on its iron umbrella to support their own illiberal regimes and even Ukraine, its staunch Soviet-era opponent, depends on Russian oil.

Putin would have also anticipated lost tourism revenues from Americans due to the LGBT ban. However, China is expected to surpass America in global travelers and is likely to boost Russia’s tourism industry. Xi Jinping’s first foreign visit as China’s new leader was to Russia, renewing relations between former Cold War allies.

Obama and Putin meeting.

The US will need to negotiate with Russia if it truly stands behind LGBT rights. For this to happen, Obama’s LGBT base will need to apply pressure on a presidency in its last term.

Since both Russia and the US remain on frosty terms, mediation between the two giants could work with a neutral third party acting as a buffer. A UN mediator either from a neutral state or the private sector could facilitate talks. The US and Russia could even send representatives instead of Obama and Putin themselves.

Canada, with its longer history of LGBT rights and the US’ closest ally, historically and geographically, could be an influential middleman. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Obama’s relations are lukewarm. This would have to change by whatever legal means necessary.

Putin anti-gay ban protest in Netherlands.

Ultimately, to safeguard Russia’s LGBT community, the US must give in to Putin in some areas. Unless the global community boycotts and ceases economic trade with Russia completely, the talks will have a secondary effect, perhaps one affecting the Syrian rebels.

If this doesn’t work, Obama’s reputation as the Lincoln of LGBT civil rights movement will be tarnished. Even worse, Russia’s LGBT community will suffer through its longest winter yet.

If Glenn Greenwald isn’t given a Pulitzer Prize for helping the Guardian uncover the biggest surveillance program in the world and expose the NSA and government lies about the extent of their eavesdropping on US citizens and foreigners, it will only serve to highlight what he and other independent media have been saying for years about the mainstream media: that the journalistic establishment in the US has gone to the corporate dogs.

Notwithstanding (New York’s grandstanding Republican Congressman) Peter King’s calls for him to be charged with espionage and thrown in jail, most sane American politicians are fully aware that, as a member of the fourth estate, Greenwald is entitled to the protection of the first amendment. He can’t be prosecuted for basically doing his professional and moral duty to shine a light on secretive government agencies that operate in the grey area of the law and are only accountable to their political masters, rather than the people.

That said; don’t expect any more integrity from either the jackasses in the Democratic Party or those elephantine dicks in the Republican Party in this affair. The fact is they are currently falling over themselves in their attempts to look tough on terrorism by supporting the Obama’s administration’s PRISM program and his attempts to bring Edward Snowden, the whistleblower at the centre of this firestorm, back to the US to face trial for violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property for the purposes of disclosing classified information. But that’s not all, he’s also been charged with “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person” under the same act.

Snowden is facing up to 30 years behind bars, should US authorities successfully repatriate him. The question as to whether Snowden should be prosecuted by the state, unlike the case of Greenwald, is by no means clear-cut. The truth of the matter is that he has violated any number of federal laws in acting the way he did and is not protected by the constitutional right to freedom of the press, the way the journalists who broke the story are.

nsa yes we scan

Therefore, the question becomes more of a moral dilemma, than a legal one: should a man who has flagrantly broken the law in the name of the public interest be spared punishment? Were Snowden’s action those of a political dissident engaged in a selfless act of civil disobedience? Or were they the actions of a dangerous egotistical subversive unwittingly playing right into the hands of terrorists and America’s enemies?

One things for sure, many of the people eagerly labeling him public enemy number one just so happen to be those with the most to hide themselves from the public. As Snowden himself said in a recent online chat arranged by the Guardian: “to be called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honour and American can be paid.”

Perhaps Greenwald summed up my own feeling on the matter best when he tweeted: “How is leaking to a newspaper and informing one’s fellow citizens about secret government behaviour espionage?”

As far as we know, Snowden didn’t sell these power point slides (if you’re reading this NSA spooks, please use more eye-catching graphics next time) to the highest bidder. Nor did he release all the classified documents at his disposal unilaterally and indiscriminately without the help of an internationally renowned newspaper, which, had his intention been to cause maximum damage to the US national interest, he could have easily done. As he said himself, to the Guardian readers “If I were a Chinese spy wouldn’t I have flown directly to Beijing? I could be living in a Palace petting a phoenix by now.”

As for the argument that so many right wing hacks and politicians of all stripes are peddling on Fox news right now, that he has revealed America’s greatest weapon in the war against Al-Qaeda and other terrorists, give me a freaking break! No terrorist worth their fertilizer would ever trust the security of cell phones or the internet for communicating their nefarious plots against us.

In a recent debate on Democracy Now about the threat to civil liberties and the work of journalists posed by the growing security state surveillance apparatus, journalist Chris Hedges made the point that people like Snowden are the only thing standing between the independent media’s ability to challenge the government and it’s violations of our basic right to privacy on the one hand and the expanding intrusions of the state into almost every area of our private lives in order to fight its quixotic “war” on terrorism, on the other.

The way we treat the Snowden case will say a lot about which side of this debate is actually winning in our society at the moment.