VANCOUVER — A trove of leaked data about offshore tax havens in Panama highlights more than ever the vital role of the whistleblower in a free society, says one of the tech era's most prominent figures to expose state secrets, Edward Snowden.
The former U.S. intelligence contractor said Tuesday that the so-called Panama Papers, which were given to journalists by an anonymous source, demonstrate that "change doesn't happen by itself."
"The media cannot operate in a vacuum and ... the participation of the public is absolutely necessary to achieving change," the ex-National Security Agency analyst said during a video conference from Moscow.
Snowden was speaking from exile on a panel organized by Simon Fraser University examining the opportunities and dangers of online data gathering.
The 32-year-old remains wanted by the U.S. government on charges of espionage after leaking classified documents in 2013 as evidence that government spy agencies were monitoring citizens' telecommunication.
The 11.5 million documents taken from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca reportedly reveal the offshore dealings of more than 100 politicians and public figures from multiple countries.
Snowden told more than 2,700 people at the Vancouver event that the 2.6 terabytes of data contained in the papers demonstrate the most privileged and powerful people in the world are operating by a different set of rules.
"It happens without our knowledge, without our awareness, without our consent," he said. "They don't even pay the same taxes as we do."
Reporters for a German newspaper obtained the volumes of data after they were approached by an unnamed individual about one year ago. The team sought help from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, D.C., which assembled 400 reporters in 80 countries to decipher the contents. The first reports were published on Sunday.
The moderator of the event asked Snowden whether the confidential source had reached out to him asking for advice on how to conduct the leak.
"If they had, I could not say one way or another, because that would be inappropriate," he replied, before adding with a laugh: "But, for they record, no, they have not."
Snowden joked throughout the one-and-a-half hour session, speaking in an animated style and often adjusting his glasses. He told the crowd it was 5 a.m. for him and he hadn't actually slept.
Within days of the Panama Papers' publication, Iceland's Prime Minister resigned. Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson stepped down earlier Tuesday following mass protests over revelations he had owned an offshore company with his wife.
Snowden lauded the "fruits of the investigation" but emphasized that global reform won't come in one night or as a result of a single protest.
"By developing a culture of transparency and accountability where we not only know what government is doing, but recognize that we have not just the right but the responsibility to actually act in changing the nature of government ... directly holds these individuals to account," he said.
"We can achieve change. And ultimately whether we do or not is a decision that falls to us."
Snowden has been livestreamed into Canada before. He made a surprise appearance at the 2014 TED Conference in Vancouver and spoke to high school students at Upper Canada College in Toronto in February 2015.
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Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press