Snowden Warns Governments Are Using Coronavirus to Build ‘the Architecture of Oppression’

VICE co-founder Shane Smith interviews famed whistleblower Edward Snowden in "Shelter in Place," a new series on VICE TV.
VICE co-founder Shane Smith interviews Edward Snowden for a new show, "Shelter in Place" from VICE TV.

The future may be unpredictable, but global pandemics aren’t. There isn’t a single government on the planet that hasn’t been warned, repeatedly, that at some point a viral pandemic will sweep the globe, causing untold death and economic disruption.

And yet most failed to prepare for the novel coronavirus.

“Every academic, every researcher who's looked at this knew this was coming,” says famed whistleblower Edward Snowden in an exclusive interview with VICE co-founder Shane Smith. “Yet when we needed it, the system has now failed us, and it has failed us comprehensively.”


Snowden is the first guest in the new “Shelter in Place” series debuting on VICE TV on Thursday at 10 p.m. EST, which looks at the global response to COVID-19 and its lasting impact around the world. Smith will discuss these themes, as well as how to survive quarantine, with a host of thinkers from science, entertainment, economics, and journalism.

In the premiere episode, Smith talks to Snowden, who blew the lid off of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of the American people in 2012. In the interview conducted from Smith’s home in Santa Monica over video chat, the two tackle topics including the lack of preparedness in the face of a global pandemic, how long this will be a threat to humanity, and whether the power we’re handing to global leaders will come back and bite us in the ass.

Smith: Why does it seem like we're so ill-prepared?

Snowden: There is nothing more foreseeable as a public health crisis in a world where we are just living on top of each other in crowded and polluted cities, than a pandemic. And every academic, every researcher who's looked at this knew this was coming. And in fact, even intelligence agencies, I can tell you firsthand, because they used to read the reports had been planning for pandemics.

Are autocratic regimes better at dealing with things like this than democratic ones?
I don't think so. I mean, there are arguments being made that China can do things that the United States can't. That doesn't mean that what these autocratic countries are doing is actually more effective.


If you're looking at countries like China, where cases seem to have leveled off, how much can we trust that those numbers are actually true?
I don't think we can. Particularly, we see the Chinese government recently working to expel Western journalists at precisely this moment where we need credible independent warnings in this region.

It seems that [coronavirus] may be the greatest question of the modern era around civil liberties, around the right to privacy. Yet no one's asking this question.
As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world. Do you truly believe that when the first wave, this second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept? No matter how it is being used, what’ is being built is the architecture of oppression.

Watch the full interview Thursday at 10 p.m. on VICE TV or catch the episode later on

Cover: VICE co-founder Shane Smith interviews Edward Snowden for a new show, "Shelter in Place" from VICE TV.