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It's been six years since Edward Snowden leaked documents about the National Security Agency's mass surveillance practices.
At this year's Web Summit conference in Lisbon, speaking to a crowd of tech investors, entrepreneurs and executives, he claimed that, since then, tech companies have made a "Faustian bargain," or a "deal with the devil" in their dealings with the U.S. government.
The famous whistleblower also said GDPR is a step in the right direction, though it fails to address the main problem.
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We need to protect everyone from data collection
Snowden pulled no punches when it came to addressing the large tech crowd — which did greet him with applause — via video link.
"These people are engaged in abuse, particularly when you look at Google and Amazon, Facebook and their business model," he explained, when prompted to speak about big tech.
"And yet every bit of it, they argue, is legal. Whether we're talking about Facebook or the NSA, we have legalized the abuse of the person through the personal."
Tech companies are increasingly led by the U.S. "to act in quasi-governmental roles," he said.
Though a lot has happened, and people are having the right kinds of conversations, the NSA leaker explained, there is still a long way to go in protecting the public from mass surveillance.
As Snowden put it himself, "the only way to protect anyone is to protect everyone."
GDPR missing the point
When asked if GDPR was a step in the right direction, Snowden said it is a "good effort" and has raised the bar — though he countered that the bar is set very low.
Ultimately though he feels GDPR, the EU data protection regulation misses the point by focusing on data protection. This, he said, fails to address the real problem of mass data collection and surveillance.
As CNET points out, several fines have come as a result of GDPR, including €50 million ($57 million) for Google. As a reference, Alphabet, Google's parent company, reported an income of $8.94 billion in Q4 of 2018.
What drove Snowden to leak the NSA documents?
On the subject of mischaracterization, Snowden also referred to his own image as a rebellious whistleblower at the start of the talk. He said he was always a "square," working for the government because it was in his family.
Ultimately though, he felt he had to take action when he saw the inner workings of U.S. surveillance and how it gave everyone a permanent record and often tracked individuals who had committed no crime.
As Snowden said, on his very first day working for the CIA, he signed an oath to protect the constitution and the people of the United States.
Many years later, however, he found that he was part of "a conspiracy to violate that oath [he] took on that very first day."