In his videoconference at South By Southwest Interactive March 10, Edward Snowden appeared 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 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 activity 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.
One solution Snowden highlighted was 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.”
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,” Snowden said. “They can jail you.”
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 came from Tim Berners-Lee, 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.