SXSW tech crowd applauds whistleblower Snowden


Except for minor technical problems, the livestream appearance of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden went off as planned at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin. Speaking from Russia via video link (Google Hangouts), Snowden participated in a discussion panel with ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner (who represents Snowden) and ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian, and took questions from the public via Twitter.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) had written a letter to conference organizers asking them to disinvite Snowden. Hugh Forrest, the festival organizer said, “I appreciate his interest in SXSW, but I’ve never uninvited a speaker, and so we wouldn’t do this with Snowden.” ACLU had a pre-taped video read in case of “technological difficulties.” [Forbes]

Members of the discussion panel made the following points.

  • Snowden’s whistleblower disclosures of NSA mass surveillance compelled tech companies to improve internet security.
  • Encryption works as a defense agains random, mass surveillance, but not against targeted surveillance.
  • Internet companies need to adopt “end-to-end” encryption.
  • Consumers who want privacy will need pay for internet apps and services.
  • Mass surveillance has not helped to catch terrorists; rather,the focus on tech surveillance distracted authorities from following up on useful tips.

Said Soghoian: “The goal here isn’t to blind the NSA. It isn’t to stop the government from going after legitimate targets. The goal here is to make it so they cannot spy on innocent people [just] because they can.” [Washington Post]

In one comment, Snowden appeared to be responding to claims from some that he was trying to impose his will on everyone else. “When I came public it wasn’t to single-handedly change the government. I wanted to inform the public so they could make their own decision,” he said.

By email, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the internet, thanked Snowden for his efforts. Berners-Lee, who has been critical of  government efforts to weaken internet security, ask Snowden what kind of oversight model he would suggest. Snowden responded that we need members of Congressional intelligence committees who are interested in holding officials accountable.

Governments like the US, Snowden said, are “setting fire to the future of the Internet,” possibly an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s novel,”Fahrenheit 451″ about a future society that burns books and a “fireman” who questions the policy.