SXSW Interactive begins with Internet surveillance at center stage


The Interactive portion of South by Southwest kicked off Friday on a serious note with Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen discussing online privacy and surveillance.

The pair was interviewed by Wired journalist Steven Levy, who took several talking points from their book, “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business.” 

Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman, said Google was “surprised” by last year’s revelations of surveillance through the National Security Agency’s PRISM program. 

“The solution to this is to encrypt data at multiple points of source,” Schmidt said. “We had already been doing this, but we accelerated our activities.”

Schmidt said he is “pretty sure” the information inside of Google is safe from any government’s prying eyes – including those of the U.S. government.

“We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010, we were attacked by the NSA in 2013. These are facts,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt and Cohen’s panel about how technology is changing privacy, security, war, revolution and terrorism was one part of a greater discussion happening at SXSW.  Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, reporter Glenn Greenwald and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, all via livestream, will make appearances at the festival during the coming days.

Schmidt and Cohen have previously met Assange their through travels. Anyone interested can read a transcript of their conversation —Assange leaked it.

“I think both of us felt who gets to decide what information is made public is a pretty fundamental issue in a democracy,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think we want random people leaking large amounts of data.”

Schmidt said another concern surrounding leaks is the public perception and “celebrity factor” of whistleblowers like Snowden might encourage copycatting.

Despite this, Schmidt and Cohen maintained Google’s wish for an open Internet without censorship. Schmidt criticized countries that are trying to prevent the flow of information through editing of the Internet.

 “The new model for a dictator is to infiltrate and try to manipulate (the Internet),” Schmidt said. “You’re seeing this in China, and in many other countries.”

He said some governments may be realizing that trying to prevent citizens from accessing the Internet will likely not end well.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the empowerment of mobile phones and connectivity, especially for people who don’t have it,” Schmidt said. “Revolutions are going to be easier to start, but harder to finish.”

The pair also touched on how the digital revolution is impacting people closer to home. Cohen, director of Google Ideas, said no matter where in the world he and Schmidt are traveling, parents will always tell them that children are going online at increasingly young ages. Cohen said the things children are saying and doing online are far outpacing their physical maturity.

In today’s digital age, parents need to teach their children about the lasting power of the content they post online. For instance, there will soon be a wave of politicians running for office who grew up in the social media age whose digital skeletons from previous years will be unearthed.  Parents need to have “the data permanence conversation” years before the sex talk because it will be relevant to their children sooner.

“In the future you can imagine parents taking out insurance policies on the stupid things their kids do and say online,” Cohen said.