Snowden Tells SXSW Audience: NSA Is ‘Setting Fire to the Future of the Internet’

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Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden told SXSW audiences Monday that, “[The NSA] is setting fire to the future of the Internet. And the people who are in this room now, you’re the firefighters.”

In a conversation with American Civil Liberties attorney Ben Wizner and chief technologist Christopher Soghoian via livestream from Russia, Snowden discussed digital privacy, the dangers of the NSA, and the need for end-to-end encryption. Just a few days prior, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Ks., had urged organizers of the fest to rescind the invitation, concerned that Snowden would receive a “softball interview.” He wrote that, “The ACLU, which is moderating this panel, will surely concede that freedom of expression for Snowden has declined since he departed American soil.”

Thousands gathered for the discussion and simulcasts, sending questions via the Twitter hashtag #asksnowden. Video quality was marginal, having to go through seven proxies.

The first question in the Q&A segment came from World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who asked Snowden to design an accountability system to govern national security agencies. “We have an oversight model that could work,” Snowden replied. “The problem is when the overseers aren’t interested in overseeing … when we have the director of national intelligence [James Clapper] telling a lie that we all know is a lie because they got the questions a day in advance.” He continued, “We need a watchdog that watches Congress. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but I saw the Constitution was being violated on massive scale.”

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In terms of what the average person can do to further security, Snowden suggested embracing encryption as a form of “defense against the dark arts.”

“I think it’s going to be difficult for these companies to offer end-to-end [encryption] simply because it conflicts with their business models,” added Soghoian. “But the irony that we are using Google Hangouts to talk to Ed Snowden has not been lost on me.” He focused on the fact that consumers have to choose between tools that are highly polished and tools that are optimized for security. “Most people are going to use the tools they already have,” he said. “That means Facebook, Google, or Skype. We need services to be building security in by default.” He suggested that we might be getting to a point where security is something more users are willing to pay extra for.

Snowden added that even companies that rely on collecting data don’t need to store it indefinitely. “We’ve reached a point where the majority of Americans’ telecom communications [are being stored] for years and years and years,” he said. “We’re monitoring everyone’s communications rather than suspects’ communications.” He believes that rather bulk collection programs, resources would be best devoted to targeted surveillance.

“There’s a record of everyone who’s called an abortion clinic, an Alcoholics Anonymous hotline, a gay bookstore,” said Soghoian. “They tell us, ‘Don’t worry. We’re not looking at it this way,’ [but] I think many Americans are fearful of this slippery slope. Even if we trust the administration right now … you may not like who’s sitting there in a few years with the data they’re collecting today.”

Snowden first received attention in 2013 when he disclosed thousands of classified documents revealing details about the NSA’s global surveillance programs, resulting in exposé of programs like PRISM, MUSCULAR, XKeyscore, and Tempora.

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