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.
Snowden assailed James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, for lying to Congress with impunity. Snowden also launched into the FISA court, insisting that the American people need a “public advocate” who understands technology and can call out Clapper and other officials who openly lie about security and technology issues.
“There will be people here today and watching at home who believe that what [Snowden] did was wrong. But his disclosures have improved Internet security,” Soghoian said. Before Snowden disclosed the extent of government surveillance, Soghoian said, few major tech companies bothered to secure their software. Our data was not only vulnerable to the NSA, he said, but to thieves snooping on your activities if you were accessing the Internet at the local Starbucks. Snowden’s disclosures forced Apple, Yahoo and other companies to tighten up their security to prevent data theft. One of the reasons that companies do not secure their software, Soghoian said, is because they are fundamentally advertising companies. “The most popular browser is Chrome,” he said, “and the most popular mobile operating system is Android.” Both are made by Google, which is primarily an advertising company with little interest in locking their products’ security.
“Encryption does work,” Snowden said, returning to his overall theme that Internet users need to become familiar with methods of encrypting their online communications. “Encryption is not some black art.” Snowden said that encryption should be elevated academically and advanced to keep ahead of government’s ability to conduct mass surveillance. Snowden advocated using a few tools, including encrypting your hard drive date, installing Ghostery and Tor, to defeat online tracking and encrypt communication. But Sohgoian quickly replied that Tor is probably beyond average Internet users because it is difficult to use. Ghostery, on the other hand, is a free plugin that allows users to turn specific trackers on and off at will.
Question from the online audience: Isn’t it just a matter of time before the government breaks encryption anyway? “The United States government has initiated a massive investigation into me personally,” Snowden said, but because encryption works, they have not been able to find him yet. “The government still has no idea what documents I have because encryption works,” he said. Snowden said that China’s and Russia’s governments have also failed to break into his encrypted data and communications. How can know that with certainty was not addressed.
The final question to Snowden dealt with the reaction he expected from his disclosures, and whether the price he has paid was worth it. “The public has benefited. The government has benefited,” he said, arguing that online security has improved and a conversation over mass surveillance has begun. “Would I do it again? Absolutely, yes,” he said. “The interpretation of the Constitution had been secretly changed from ‘No unreasonable search and seizure’ to ‘Seizing data is fine, just don’t search it.'” That, Snowden said, was wrong and needed to be stopped.
The hosts never asked, and Snowden thus never answered, why he fled to Russia, which is arguably a worse surveillance state, to criticize America’s surveillance state.
More: So, Snowden’s talk got beaten out by the producer of an acquired-taste cable show that hardly anyone watches. Millenials…(sigh).