Over a Google Hangouts video that echoed heavily through seven proxies, technologists gathered at the 2014 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival met with whistleblower Edward Snowden on Monday. Seated in front of a chroma-keyed image of the United States Constitution, Snowden addressed not just a packed auditorium in Austin, Texas but audiences across the internet who tuned into a live streaming of his appearance at the Texas Tribune website. While obviously centered around Snowden’s groundbreaking leakage of U.S. surveillance documents in 2013, the SXSW discussion hoped to discourage mass government surveillance by making it cost more.
The United States, he said, was setting fire to the Internet and technologists are the “fire-fighters” who could fix the problem. He appealed to the technology community to develop easy-to-use encryption that would significantly increase the cost of mass surveillance. Snowden suggested that in making surveillance an expensive affair, the technologists could force governments to narrow down their surveillance to only targets of real consequence.
The high-profile SXSW talk garnered keen interest on ground and online because it is the first time Edward Snowden has spoken publicly since he fled the country and sought asylum in Russia in 2013. The panel discussion that lasted for an hour, also included American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s chief technologist, Chris Soghoian and was hosted by Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech , Privacy & Technology Project and. Wizner is also the legal advisor to Snowden. The two guests together discussed the problems of mass surveillance and how best to fix them.
In his opening remarks, Snowden accused the Congress of not creating legislative safety nets against governmental surveillance and said he believed that the policy response must be accompanied by a technical response to enforce people’s right to privacy. According to him, the creative and development community possessed the power to protect private data on the internet.
At the root of the problem, said Soghoian, was the complete disregard for security and encryption by developers which has enabled government surveillance to expand exponentially in the recent past. Out of the box thinking is required to secure services that people use day to day and it requires developers to reassess the importance of security at the beginning, rather than later on, according to him.
Noting that a number of people watching Snowden on Monday might resent his actions against the U.S. government, Soghoian defended him by saying that the internet was a safer place after Snowden’s shocking revelations. Technology giants like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have tried to quickly distance themselves from these revelations by addressing lapses in their security, he said. For instance, within the past eight months, Google and Yahoo have begun providing their users with SSL encryption by default. He felt internet users had Snowden to thank for improved security online.
But Soghoian was cynical about the impact of the newly placed security improvements: The additional security, he told the audience, still allowed the tech giants to gather user data, which can any day be obtained by the government. He blamed it on the advertising-based business models that these companies used and said that the situation was not set to change very soon.
Snowden felt that while a lot of progress was being made in terms of creating accessible products that came with encryption, far more work was needed on that front. Addressing the SXSW gathering, Snowden said that enabling people to communicate through encrypted channels would hopefully increase the cost of mass government surveillance at current levels. Dismissing rumors that the NSA had already cracked popular encryption standards, Snowden referred to his own example: He has been able to avoid detection thus far with the help of encryption, he said. However, he agreed that encryption standards needed more advancements to better protect privacy.
Claiming that he wasn’t against the collection of data itself, Snowden said that he opposed agencies like NSA holding onto that information beyond the necessary time period. He defended his actions, which many have dubbed traitorous, by saying that his expose had only worked to strengthen the U.S.’s national security by pointing out its vulnerabilities. He also warned that if the U.S. did not reform its policies, it would be seen as giving a “green signal” to other countries to follow suit.
The panel discussion also included a question and answer session, where questions posted by users on Twitter (#asksnowden) were answered directly by Snowden. The first question came from Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who in an email applauded Snowden’s revelations as “profoundly in public interest.” Answering a question on whether he was satisfied with the kind of response his leaks have had globally, Snowden said all that he wanted was to inform the public about such a massive violation of the U.S. Constitution so that they could initiate a meaningful debate on privacy and decide for themselves what needed to be done. He also said that he had no regrets and that he would do it all over again regardless of what happened to him.
Agreeing that encryption hindered bulk surveillance, Edward Snowden and Chris Soghoian felt that the goal wasn’t to stop governments from monitoring legitimate targets. On the other hand, the process needs to be made too expensive to spy on everyone, so that governments will have to choose who to surveil in the future.
By Aruna Iyer