With little fanfare and quite a bit of applause, NSA leaker Edward Snowden virtually took the stage and addressed the attendees of SXSW and the world. Snowden appeared live via satellite from an undisclosed location in Russia, using a greenscreen background evidently to conceal his whereabouts in Russia where he has been granted asylum since August 2013. Instead of revealing his location, Snowden used a graphic of the Declaration of Independence as his backdrop. The conversation was hosted via Google Hangouts.
The event began with a question: Why did Snowden choose to address SXSW? He answered that the technological leaders and developers represented at SXSW could enforce our privacy rights via technological standards.
Snowden advocated using end to end software encryption to defeat the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance. The aim, he said, is to make mass surveillance too expensive and difficult for government agencies to engage in.
Much of the conversation with Snowden veered off into the weeds of discussing the use of personal security apps to defeat the NSA. The technical ability to find, install and use those apps is beyond probably 98% or more Internet users at this point. One of the hosts suggested that Internet service companies could offer encrypted communications for an additional charge. Snowden countered that companies like Google could also elect not to hold the data they gather on users once that data’s business purpose has been fulfilled. Disposing of that data would render mass surveillance more difficult.
Snowden accused two American officials of doing more damage to national security via surveillance than anyone else: NSA directors Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander. Snowden said that both are guilty of reorienting the NSA from cyber defense to attack, compromising America’s edge in intellectual property and cyber security. Snowden argued that his leaks have not harmed national secuity, but have improved national security. Snowden and the ACLU chief technologist on the stage, Chris Soghoian, agreed that the U.S. government has prioritized data gathering over cyber security. This weakens our cyber security against geopolitical foes with extensive hacking and cyber attack capabilities, like China.
Snowden brought up two cases in which mass surveillance ended up missing obvious, reported terror threats. While the NSA was hacking Google to get at metadata, Snowden said, U.S. intelligence missed both the Boston bombers and the underwear bomber. In both of those cases, U.S. intelligence had been warned that the specific individuals were a threat. Yet no action was taken against them to prevent their attacks. Meanwhile, NSA was scooping up metadata from Americans’ cell phones and Internet use. Soghoian said that the NSA knows who has called an abortion clinic or gay book store, but misses terrorists plotting attacks.