Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor responsible for the release of thousands of classified documents detailing the American government’s use of mass surveillance, says the Panama Papers show the role of the whistleblower in a free society has become “vital.”

Mr. Snowden, who is living in Russia under political asylum, made the comments via video link during a sold-out event hosted by Simon Fraser University on Tuesday night.

Mr. Snowden said the Panama Papers reveal “the most privileged and the most powerful members of society are operating by a different set of rules.”

“I think that this shows, more than ever, the role of the whistleblower in a free society has become not only desirable but vital,” he said.

The Panama Papers are a cache of 11.5-million records leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that has been retained by politicians and business leaders around the world to channel money beyond their countries’ borders and into tax havens through the use of offshore accounts.

The Prime Minister of Iceland stepped down Tuesday after he and his wife were said to have had an offshore account.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has said the records reveal the offshore holdings of 140 politicians and public officials, and more than 200,000 shell companies in all.

Simply setting up offshore entities is not illegal and companies, as well as rich individuals, often do so to take advantage of perfectly legal tax loopholes or for other legitimate purposes. But offshore entities can also be used to illegally evade taxes or to launder or hide money.

Mr. Snowden, when asked by the event moderator if he had had any contact with the person who leaked the Panama Papers, said he had not.

He accused public officials of increasingly “creating a new paradigm.”

“They’re increasingly guarding knowledge of their operations, of their assets, of their interests,” he said. “At the same time, through programs of mass surveillance revealed in recent years, we, the private citizens, are increasingly transparent to government. The relationship between the governing and the governed has become inverted. And rather than those who represent us in our government being accountable to us, we are now accountable to them.”

Mr. Snowden, when asked about Canada’s new anti-terror legislation, cited its connection to the United States and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

“You put everything in one big, giant bucket. I would suspect this is what C-51 is really about,” he said. “It’s about broadening that bucket and making sure we put more Canadian information in that sharing bucket, so that it’s more easily shared. Now I don’t want to say that it’s absolutely what’s happening, but … this is how it works, this is what we do for every other country.”

Mr. Snowden received a standing ovation at the end of the 90-minute event.

Tuesday’s event, held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, was part of the SFU President’s Dream Colloquium, which brings leading thinkers to the university. The event was also live-streamed online.

This was not the first time Mr. Snowden directly addressed a Canadian audience. He also spoke via web link to a crowd of more than 1,000 students at Toronto’s Upper Canada College in February of last year.

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 06, 2016 12:12AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 06, 2016 12:27AM EDT