Edward Snowden has been called many different things by people -- hero, traitor and coward are commonly used, depending on who you ask -- but the former analyst-turned -whistleblower seemed more like a rock star after his hour-long discussion on Internet privacy and security at SXSW Interactive on Monday.
“Thank you Austin!” Snowden said to loud applause, just as any rock star would to an appreciative crowd when he eventually logged off from a live Google Hangout with the tech convention in Texas.
With the preamble to the U.S. constitution used as a backdrop (the words “We the People” stood out just behind Snowden’s head), Snowden called on the tech community to craft solutions to the privacy violations made by the secret surveillance programs that he revealed over the summer. Snowden said intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and the Government Communications Headquarters are “setting fire to the future of the Internet.”
“You are the firefighters,“ Snowden told the crowd of more than 3,000 people who packed into the auditorium. Some 4,000 SXSW attendees watched from spillover rooms, and countless more joined in via a live stream hosted by the Texas Tribune. “We need you to help us fix this.”
The video feed was choppy throughout the discussion, as the broadcast was bounced through several proxies to conceal his exact location in Russia. The audio became often became difficult to hear, but the message was loud and clear: Tech developers need to make it easier for users to encrypt their data, to make it difficult for mass surveillance programs to function.
Snowden was joined by Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, and Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Program.
Soghoian and Snowden said that many of the tools out there to protect privacy and security online are too difficult for most people to use. The tools most people use, the ones that work right out of the box, aren’t secure and make the NSA’s surveillance programs possible. Soghoian pointed out the irony that the discussion with Snowden about privacy and data collection was made possible by Google Hangouts.
“We need services to be building security in by default without needing any advanced configuration,” Soghoian said. “The next WhatsApp or the next Twitter needs to be using encrypted end-to-end communications.”
Snowden said that in his experience, the NSA’s surveillance programs aren’t effective because they focus on mass monitoring and data collection instead of targeted surveillance of suspects, which he feels is much better than mass surveillance. Snowden said that if the NSA focused less on mass surveillance, it might have been able to prevent the Boston Marathon bombings or the “Underwear Bomber.”
Another one of the problems, Snowden said, was a lack of accountability for intelligence agencies.
“The problem is when the overseers are not interested in oversight,” Snowden said, calling for public advocates to hold the government responsible and inform the public. “We need a watchdog that watches Congress.”
Soghoian said that Snowden’s own actions led directly to Internet companies improving security by encrypting data.
The discussion also covered data collection by private companies like Google and Facebook. Both said that while this isn’t quite as bad as government surveillance because users have legal protection, the problem is that these advertising platforms make the NSA’s job easier.
Snowden responded to several questions from Twitter, including one about what steps average Internet users can take to protect themselves. Snowden told people to encrypt their physical hard drives, encrypt their networks and use Tor to encrypt web traffic.
“Encryption does work,” Snowden said, pointing out that encryption has made his work possible. “We need to think of encryption not as an arcane, dark art, but as a basic protection.”
The government will always be able to spy when it targets individuals. The discussion concluded when he said the best strategy to defend against mass surveillance is to make it too expensive for the government to spy on everyone. Snowden said that data should not be collected without users' knowledge and consent, and that there needs to be a public debate on the government’s surveillance.
Snowden drew the most applause when he commented on why he leaked documents about the program.
“I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale,” he said. “The interpretation of the Constitution had been changed in secret to ‘no unreasonable search and seizure’ to ‘any seizure is fine, just don’t search it’ and that’s something that the public ought to know.”
What did you think of Snowden’s comments on surveillance and Internet privacy at SXSW? Let us know in the comments.