5 Things We Learned From Snowden's SXSW Talk

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Joining SXSW Interactive via a video conferencing link “through seven proxies”, Edward Snowden made his first public comments in some time to discuss his role as the most infamous whistleblower ever and the NSA surveillance controversies. While the quality of the video link was anything but perfect, Snowden stood firmly in front of a green screen of the Constitution to convey his message and those in attendance and those viewing online had a number of important things to take away from the talk.

1. He Has No Regrets
“Would I do this again? Yes, regardless of what happens to me,” said Edward Snowden to the packed auditorium at SXSW Interactive and without any hesitance. Despite having to leave behind his life and his family and having little or no prospects of every coming home, Snowden has no regrets over leaking NSA data and becoming the biggest whistleblower in history. “I took an oath to protect the U.S. Constitution, and I saw the Constitution being violated on a massive basis,” he said.

2. Encryption Does Work
Snowden made it clear that he’s a big advocate of encrypted hardware and software as being the primary means of protecting our data from “hoovering” methods. He used his own situation as an example of how powerful encryption can be, stating that the U.S. government will never know exactly what data he leaked to journalists until that information has been published. “The bottom line… is that encryption does work,” he said, addressing a comment that the NSA could crack standard encryptions.

He went to encourage people to use The Onion Router, much more commonly known as TOR, free online anonymity software that guards against traffic analysis. “TOR is a mixed routing network, which is very important because it’s encrypted from the user, through the ISP, to the end of a sort of cloud—a network of browsers that you go through,” Snowden explained, “and because of this, you’re asking your telecommunications provider to no longer spy on you by default, the way they do now, today, when you go to any website.”

3. The Major Tech Companies Need to Stand Up
Edward Snowden chose SXSW Interactive to deliver his message due to the large presence of those from the tech community. The NSA is “setting fire to future of the Internet” and technology’s major companies are the ones that could hold the answers, they are the “firefighters”.

“The tech community are the ones who could help fix this situation, more than people in Washington,” Snowden remarked. “There’s a tech response needed. It’s the makers, thinkers, and the dev community who can help make sure we’re safe,” he added. Chris Soghoian of the ACLU was also present at the talk, harmonizing on many of Snowden’s comments and noted that companies like Google are beginning to step up and take measures against NSA surveillance but it took a massive controversy to get them to that point. “Unfortunately it took the largest whistleblower in history to get these companies to prioritize their customer’s privacy,” Soghoian said.

4. Mass Surveillance Misses the Real Threats
During the hour long talk, Snowden was keen to mention that vast NSA spying tactics are largely ineffective in accomplishing their aim—detecting crime and threats. The “lack of focus” means that actual suspects are often skimmed over. Snowden stated that “we’ve actually had tremendous intelligence failures because we’re monitoring the Internet… everybody’s communications, instead of the suspects’ communications.” He used the example of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Tsarnaev brothers and tips about them not being followed up on because Internet surveillance was a priority instead.

“The reality is now we’ve reached the point where the majority of Americans’ telephone communications are being recorded and all this metadata that’s being stored for years and years and years,” said Snowden. “But two independent White House investigations have found that it has no value at all. It’s never helped us.”

5. Accountability is Key
Tim Berners-Lee, who you will know of very well this week as the founder of the web, asked the question of Snowden, how can government practices be changed for the better? “Accountability” was his simple answer.

“We have an oversight model that could work,” said Snowden. “The problem is when we have congressmen who are shooting for the NSA rather than holding them into account… that’s an incredibly dangerous thing. The key fact is accountability.”

This lack of accountability or owning up to criticism is holding back progress, according to Snowden. He went on to castigate the use of contractors by the NSA, with he himself being one of them. “The problem is that when the NSA gets a pot of money, they don’t develop the solution for themselves—they bring in contractors,” he explained. “The problem is you’ve got contractors and private companies influencing policy. You’ve got people who aren’t accountable, who are saying, ‘Hey, let’s do that, let’s move money into public surveillance,’ without asking if it’s in the public’s interest, and we need to make sure this doesn’t go too far.”

You can watch the whole talk below:

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