Snowden tells SXSW online surveillance is "setting fire to the future of the Internet"

Editor-in-Chief

In his videoconference at South By Southwest Interactive Monday, Edward Snowden chose to place himself in front of an image of the document that has charged him with theft and espionage.

“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale,” he said.

Snowden spoke remotely, supposedly through several server proxies, from Russia, where he has been staying under asylum since fleeing the United States after leaking thousands of classified government surveillance documents last June. The whistleblower said the National Security Agency and similar government surveillance programs are “setting fire to the future of the Internet.”

"The people in this room are all the firefighters," Snowden said of the SXSW audience. "We need you to help us fix this."

Snowden said he has no regrets about leaking the NSA documents, which revealed the intelligence agency has been monitoring Americans’ phone and Internet behavior in the name of national security.

"Would I do it again? Absolutely. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to know," Snowden said.

While Snowden sat in front of a green screen displaying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in Russia, two American Civil Liberties Union lawyers joined the conversation in Austin.  Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist, said he knew there would be some people watching the “virtual conversation” who disagree with Snowden’s actions.

“But let me clear about one really important thing,” Soghoian said. “(Snowden’s) disclosures have improved Internet security.”

Snowden discussed the need for more accessible, secure communication tools. Encryption tools are not difficult to use for people in the tech industry, but not so much for the average citizen, he said.

One solution Snowden highlighted would be to implement end-to-end encryption that would protect communications from user to user. Encryption used through Google and other services leave communications vulnerable to collection from the service provider.

Snowden said end-to-end encryption makes mass surveillance virtually impossible at the network level, and provides a more constitutionally sound model of surveillance because it forces the government to target individual users through hacking rather than conduct mass collection.

“The bottom line is that encryption does work,” Snowden said. “It's the Defense Against the Dark Arts of the digital realm.”

He spent most of the talk stressing this point. Snowden criticized the “lack of focus” in monitoring everyone’s communication rather than focusing on individual suspects because it causes security services to misdirect their attention away from real crimes, such as last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.

When asked about the difference between surveillance by the government and by private Internet companies, Snowden said government surveillance is more underhanded. “The government has the ability to deprive you of rights. They can jail you,” he said, speaking from personal experience.

Snowden faces felony charges of espionage and theft of government property in the United States, and has said he will not return from Russia until the U.S. changes its whistleblower protection laws.

The first question of the session, appropriately, came from Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee said he believes Snowden’s actions are “profoundly in the public interest,” and asked what should be changed in the nation’s surveillance system.

Snowden answered that there needs to be public oversight and “some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us.”

"We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we're not informed, we can't consent to these (government) policies," Snowden said.

Snowden reminded the audience that even if they trust the current administration with their data, the person in the Oval Office changes every four years.

"We rely on the ability to trust our communications, and without that, we cannot succeed," he said.