In his first live video interview, renowned NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told attendees at South by Southwest Interactive that as citizens, it’s our responsibility to install basic encryption measures and demand increased reform surrounding government mass surveillance.
“What I wanted to do [by leaking the documents] was inform the public so they could debate a decision and provide consent for what we should do,” he said via a somewhat flaky video link.
When asked what the average user can do to protect themselves against invasions of privacy, Snowden said that full disk encryption, network encryption and Tor browsing is effective for deterring mass surveillance. Tor is a heavily encrypted network that protects users’ online browsing and communication, but it is difficult for the average consumer to install and use.
Even Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who works closely with Snowden in the continued disclosure of NSA documents, did not know how to use encrypted technologies when he began communicating with the whistleblower. Both Snowden and panel moderators at today’s SXSW festival joked about the “Glenn Greenwald test,” meaning if the average person doesn’t know how to use encrypted technologies, they won’t be implemented on a large scale—so any new secure communication methods need to be easily accessible to the average person.
The event in Austin, Texas, attracts technologists from around the world, many of whom understand and know how to install things like Tor. The people who attended his panel likely have the ability to learn and educate the general public about the importance of secure encryption, and some can even create better, more mainstream systems that can be used by a broader audience in the future.
“[Governments] are setting fire to the future of the Internet, and the people in this room now are all the firefighters,” Snowden said.
Collect Data, But Don’t Store It
Snowden, a former NSA contractor, is not opposed to all surveillance. He acknowledged that data collection is important for both national security and business that operate in a free market online. It’s how the government or companies use the data that’s the problem.
“It’s not that you can’t collect any data, it’s that you should only collect the data and hold it as long as necessary for the operation,” he said. “Even companies whose business models collect data, don’t need to store it after it’s used.”
When Snowden leaked information about an NSA program called PRISM that exposed the government data collection from technology companies including Google and Facebook, it brought up the question of whether voluntarily giving your data to companies to use for advertising is just as bad as the government itself collecting it.
Both Google and Facebook use people’s data to sell them advertisements by scraping and indexing keywords that appear in searches and conversation. It’s similar to blanket NSA surveillance that collects data from citizens.
The difference, Snowden said, is that people using Facebook or Google aren’t forced to give up information. “Companies can surveil you to sell you products and that can be bad,” he said “But technically it’s voluntary contracts.”
Putting The Entire Country’s Safety At Risk
The Snowden documents continue to reveal that the U.S. government has elevated offensive operations, like spying on citizens both at home and abroad, instead of defensive operations that protect intellectual property and communications of our own.
“So much of our country’s economic success is based on our intellectual property, and our ability to create and share and compete,” Snowden said. “America has more to lose than anyone else.”
By prioritizing its efforts on information collection, it opens the U.S. up for potential cybersecurity attacks. And when the government monitors and reports everyone’s communications instead of targeting suspects, there is very little value to be gained.
Snowden said that because there is no accountability in the federal government for organizations like the NSA, there needs to be a group of trusted public representatives and civil rights officials that oversees government regulation.
“We need a watchdog that watches Congress,” and calls them out on the lies, he said. Which then begs the question: Who watches the watchmen?
Throughout the talk Snowden didn’t once mention his exile or his status as one of America’s most wanted men. The candid conversation focused on his desire to educate the public about the continued violation of rights, and what the average person can do to protect themselves, and, eventually, succeed at reforming the government.
Snowden doesn’t regret a thing—he said if he could do it all again, he would. “I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw the constitution was violated on a massive scale,” he said.
Regardless of whether or not people support Snowden’s actions, his disclosures have significantly improved Internet security, and have sparked a conversation and debate about privacy that may have never happened without him.
Lead image by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite