In March, the world’s most famous whistleblower Edward Snowden chatted with a Ted audience in Vancouver using a $16,000 Beam — a telepresence robot that is essentially a screen on a stick on wheels — which can be operated remotely. After an official Q&A on stage with Ted founder Chris Anderson, the U.S. government’s highly-wanted man drove around and chatted with attendees including Google’s Sergey Brin. To prepare for the presentation, Ted organizers had sent a Beam to the American Civil Liberties Office in New York, so that Snowden’s lead lawyer, Ben Wizner, could test it out and make sure it worked before it made its debut on stage. The ACLU still has that Beam, allowing Snowden to pop in and drive around the office, as mentioned by German reporter Julia Prosinger in a profile of the Snowden team. Her report ends dramatically; while talking with Snowden via Skype, the flickering screen caused her to have an epileptic seizure, which Snowden treated from afar, familiar with a condition he also has.
The telepresence robot is a “disruptive technology that is a profound response to exile,” said Ben Wizner. “You assume it’s just going to be Skype on wheels, but it’s actually much more intimate than that for both the person operating it and for the people in the room with it because the camera is so good and because it moves independently.” Like Snowden himself, who is confined to Russia, the bot doesn’t have much freedom. Snowden is not wandering the streets of Manhattan in it. Thus far, the Beam has stayed at the ACLU in New York; Snowden can “drop” in and drive around, to speak to employees there or stare out a window at the Statue of Liberty which is within view from the financial district digs.
Wizner said he would like to get more Beams; he’d like to send one to University of Glasgow in Scotland for example where Snowden is currently serving a three-year term as a student rector. “We wanted to have a Beam with robes there to accept it,” said Wizner.
As to how often the Beam gets used, Wizner said “sometimes.” “People gather and he speaks. I was on a conference call once and he just rolled around the office for 45 minutes, and went into [ACLU civil liberty attorney] Jameel Jaffer’s office to talk about [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act],” said Wizner. “He mainly likes going on the Beam to thank people and interact with people who have helped him.”
As for the security of the device, the Beam needs wi-fi for connectivity and then uses end-to-end encryption for calls. But the “pilot station,” (a.k.a. Snowden on his laptop) connects through a cloud supported by Suitable Technologies, which makes the device, to make contact with the Beam in the ACLU office.
According to a user manual, “Beam call data is encrypted using AES-256 in CTR mode, and authenticated using HMAC-SHA1. Encryption and decryption happen at the call endpoints, so if relays are used they only process encrypted data.” The manual warns, “because the infrastructure establishes the trust relationship between the device and the pilot station, a compromised infrastructure would be able to carry out a man-in-the-middle attack;” it encourages anyone worried about that to contact Suitable Technologies support.
Earlier this year, before the Snowden bot was a reality, I spoke to Scott Hassan, the CEO of Suitable Technologies. “We did not put a record button on the Beam. We want it to be ephemeral, like a normal conversation,” he told me. “The line in between the connection points is encrypted. Privacy is important to us.”
He joked that it would take the NSA to break in. “We have not been contacted by the NSA to give them a back door,” he added more seriously. “Though they did contact us about using Beams internally.”