Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, spoke to a sold-out crowd via webcast at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on April 5th, 2016.

Big data students learn about ethics and security from Edward Snowden

April 12, 2016

Excitement beamed from the faces of SFU’s Big Data Master’s students as they took their seats at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on April 5th. In a few minutes, they would virtually meet Edward Snowden, who was responsible for what was the world’s largest data leak in history until the Panama Papers made headlines earlier this month. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, revealed secret massive-scale surveillance data in 2013 and has since been accused of espionage by the United States government.

In an event organized by SFU Public Square and the President’s Dream Colloquium in Big Data, Snowden was now scheduled to speak about big data, security, and human rights to a sold-out crowd. Students in the Big Data Master’s Program received a special invitation to the event.

Venkatesh, one of the students in the program, says: “This is the first time I am attending a talk by someone as internationally renowned as Snowden, so I am very excited to be here. I look forward to Snowden’s ideas on how we can use big data to make the world a better place.”

Indeed, audience members who were interested in the controversial whistleblower’s thoughts on the use of big data were not disappointed.

In his conversation with the panelists, Snowden highlighted the many ways and instances in which data is collected by government and corporate agencies, and the potential this data holds, depending on how it is used. When asked about how to establish national security accountability, he stated that, based on history, doing it right means “to have an aggressive and public oversight process that really digs in, in a very adversarial way,” holding public officials to the account of law. Failing to do so, he warned, means that “we have exchanged an open society for one that is more controlled.”

“Edward Snowden’s talk was one of the most insightful and informative talks that I’ve attended in a long time,” says Big Data Master’s student Saeed. “His unique perspective on big data ethics, and security, truly adds to my understanding of my own role in the world as a future data science professional.”

In his closing remarks for the evening, Dr. Fred Popowich, Director of the Professional Master’s Program in Big Data, aptly reminded the audience that we all share the responsibility to be informed about data use and collection. After all, it is the human who is in control of data and who makes decisions.

Venkatesh nods in agreement. “We are responsible for using our technological devices in an informed manner,” he says, “instead of allowing our devices to use us.”

So, what will you do to become a more informed participant in the age of big data?


Some of the Big Data Master's students who attended Snowden's talk at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.