*(Photo: Soofia Tariq)

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden has criticised Australia’s COVID-19 tracking app COVIDSafe, claiming “Australia has embraced one of the worst methods [of contact tracing].”

Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) employee who revealed in 2013 that the organisation was spying on its own citizens, spoke at the digital Festival of Dangerous Ideas via video-call from Russia, where he has been granted permanent residency.

He went on to explain that the COVIDSafe app “ turns on all the sensors on your phone, and then reports all this information to central authorities without your knowledge.”

Snowden also expressed concerns about the growing lack of media freedom in Australia.

‘The Australian government is waging its own war on the press… in precisely the same way the Trump administration is doing.”

“Basically, government is trying to… normalise the idea that state security agencies decide the things that can and cannot be said in the press,” he added.

He went on to talk about the September US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision, which ruled in his favour and agreed that that the NSA program he exposed was unlawful and that US intelligence leaders had lied.

“Since that moment, seven years ago, discussion of surveillance and secrecy have swept across every country… we have, I think, identified the problem. The problem is that mass surveillance of the human population is not and never was about safety. It’s about power.”

He is still apprehensive to trust courts, however, asking; “how do we reconcile the public’s need and the fact that there are no penalties for a government or an official that breaks the law? Why do we not see officials now having to answer to courts themselves, make defences themselves for why they did this, why they violated a law?”

He also spoke in support of fellow whistle-blower Julian Assange.

“I believe the reason the Australian Government is so reluctant to defend this man, who very much… needs the defence, [is] because if he is convicted… every other journalist in the world can be prosecuted for espionage.”

Appearances like this one have made Snowden approximately $1.2m. A US District Court however, has ruled that the government is entitled to $5.2m of profits from his speaking appearances and his memoir ‘Permanent Record’.

  – Story by Soofia Tariq @soofiatariq. Additional editing by Lucy Tassell.