Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was answering audience questions last week via video chat when the feed temporarily froze and cut out.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was answering audience questions last week via video chat when the feed temporarily froze and cut out.

As disappointed murmurs filled Gray Chapel on Ohio Wesleyan University's campus in Delaware, a lone person spoke up: "Thanks, NSA!"

Snowden, who's alternately been called a patriot, a traitor and a whistleblower since he released a trove of documents related to federal surveillance efforts to journalists in 2013, spoke Sept. 28 as part of the Sagan National Colloquium.

Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, opened his presentation to OWU students and other attendees with a brief history of the expansion of domestic surveillance programs in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he made the decision to leak top-secret documents to select members of the media after he determined NSA officials were misleading Congress and the American people about the types and amount of data they were collecting within the U.S.

"I started to see things that didn't align with the public claims ... and this unsettled me," he said.

Snowden said he was particularly unnerved by the government's bulk collection of mobile-device metadata -- information on when and how the devices were used -- from American civilians' phones. While the collection of metadata is not the same as eavesdropping, Snowden said he still viewed it as a serious invasion of privacy.

"It's the sort of thing a private eye would write down if they were tracking you all day," he said.

Snowden said communications companies also "sold out" their customers post-9/11 by voluntarily providing more information than required without a warrant on its customers' activities to government agencies.

Officials in President Barack Obama's administration repeatedly have called Snowden's actions illegal and claimed they put Americans' lives at risk.

Snowden said government officials "have never been able to show a single individual case of someone coming to harm" because of the leaks. He said he believes any such damage caused by his actions would have been highly publicized by the government if it occurred.

Snowden said he views privacy as a human right that is all too often violated by governments across the globe.

"We're talking about inherent dignity, things all people should enjoy," he said.

Snowden said he doubts legislative reforms will ever catch up with advances in surveillance technology. He said he therefore thinks efforts to improve encryption technology are the best hope at protecting people's privacy rights in the future.

"We have to create a system that protects everyone equally," he said.

Asked if he would consider returning to the U.S., Snowden said he would like to, but only if he would be allowed to explain the motive behind his actions to a jury. He said he does not think a judge would allow him to do so in a trial on espionage charges.

"Believe me, if I could be in the U.S. and making this case, I would be there tomorrow," he said.

Asked specifically if he would feel comfortable returning to the U.S. if Hillary Clinton is elected, Snowden said citizens should be cautious about having "too much faith in elected officials." Even so, he said the public still should try to elect the best candidates.

"Some years it's clear that's just not going to happen," he said, referring to the the ongoing presidential race.

tgallick@thisweeknews.com

@TWGallick