Edward Snowden’s Virtual Address at SXSW

Few people have rocked the assumptions of modern life more than Edward Snowden. Since the former National Security Agency contractor began leaking classified documents he took from his former employer, we’ve had to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that the ways in which we choose to communicate and find information are fundamentally not private in any conventional sense of the word.

At the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, Snowden will today for the first time face an audience and answer questions about his actions and what they mean. He will be appearing via live videoconference in a conversation with Christopher Soghoian, a technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project and Edward Snowden’s legal adviser, will moderate.

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Liz Gannes Liz Gannes March 10, 20149:02 am

Snowden is appearing via Google hangout “through seven proxies,” says Wizner. 

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Wizner says Kansas congressman lobbied SXSW to cancel the session, saying Snowden’s absence means he has lost his right to freedom of speech. 

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Snowden is in front of a green screen of the U.S. constitution, though it looks like the signal dropped.

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Why this audience? “SXSW and the technology community, the people who are in the room in Austin right now, they’re people who can really fix things even when congress hasn’t yet gotten to the point of addressing,” says a crackly Snowden.

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“There’s a policy response, but there’s also a technical response that needs to occur.”

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Says Snowden: The primary challenge that mass surveillance has is not just how you collect communications, but how do you interpret and analyze them. If the government wants to gather someone’s communications, they should have to target them specifically. That’s the value of end-to-end encryption. 

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Soghoian says Internet companies have made huge steps in the eight months since the Snowden disclosures to make communication more secure, work that he and others had been lobbying them to do for years. 

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“The irony that we’re using Google Hangouts to talk to Ed Snowden has not been lost on me or the team here,” says Soghoian. But secure communications alternatives tend to break. “You have to choose between a service that’s easy to use and polished, or a tool that’s hard for regular people to use.”

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Snowden praises Whisper Systems and others for their work on services that are secure by default. 

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There’s an opportunity for startups in this space, Soghoian says, because even though incumbents are improving, they will have more trouble being secure by default, because they are advertising businesses. 

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Snowden says companies should only hold onto users’ data as long as necessary for business. “Whether you’re Google or Facebook you can still do these things in a responsible way.”

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Changing topics, Snowden says: “More than anything, there have been two officials that have harmed our national security…Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander.” Why? The harm to intellectual property and innovation. “We rely on the ability to trust our communications, and without that, we don’t have anything. We rely on that for our economy to succeed.”

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“Our networks have been designed with surveillance in mind,” says Soghoian. 

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Snowden charges the U.S. government with spending all its time on hacking, while failing to follow up on real intelligence warnings on Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

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Soghoian: Regardless of your politics, you don’t want the government knowing that you called an abortion clinic or church or gun store. That is none of the government’s business.

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World wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee wrote in to thank Snowden, as he believes that his actions have been profoundly in the human interest. This gets applause. 

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Berners-Lee asks about oversight, and Snowden rails on James Clapper lying to Congress without criticism, secret FISA courts, etc. 

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Soghoian says Snowden’s PRISM disclosure has already wreaked a lot of change. “Without Ed’s disclosures, there wouldn’t have been as much pressure for tech companies to encrypt.” Whatever you think of Snowden, his disclosures have directly driven improvement against Internet security — and not just defending against government surveillance, but also hackers and criminals, argues Soghoian. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes March 10, 20149:38 am

It’s worth noting that the crowd here in Austin is sitting rapt listening to the discussion, but isn’t effusive in response to all this pro-Snowden talk. There have only been a couple of applause moments. That could well be because we are all straining to hear his comments. 

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Asked whether other countries will move to copy the U.S. system after his disclosures, Snowden says, “If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will accept that as a green light to do the same. 

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Because it houses much of the tech industry, the U.S. has unparalleled intelligence advantages, Soghoian said. But the revelations of the last eight months may well weaken those tech companies because they have lost international trust. 

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Wizner asks, should people still be confident in encryption, after all this? Says Snowden: “The bottom line, and I’ve repeated this again and again, is that encryption does work. We need to think of it as defense against the dark arts. We need to be implementing and actively researching and improving it.”

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Of all the stories that have come out, the one that has had the biggest impact on the security community is the information about subverting the design of cryptographic and random number generator algorithms, says Soghoian. Mild-mannered cryptographers have been radicalized, he says, and encryption will make leaps forward in the coming years because they are pissed.

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Snowden talks personal Internet security toolkit: Full-disk encryption, network encryption and TOR. “If there’s a warrant on you, the NSA’s after you, they’re still going to get you” — but this will help for everything else. Wizner says if TOR is really his answer for regular users, “then we’ve failed.” Soghoian says he himself wavers on tools, because he believes Firefox is more private, Chrome is more secure, and he’s not sure which he values more. 

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Snowden jabs that the U.S. government has assembled a massive team to go full-force against him and the journalists he’s working with — but they still don’t know what documents they have. 

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That’s evidence that encryption works, Snowden says. If the Russians or Chinese had gotten access to Snowden’s documents, it would be obvious to the U.S. government, and that hasn’t happened. 

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We’ve reached the 50-minute mark and this conversation is very one note. A few in the crowd now filtering out, though hundreds still in their seats.

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“If data is being clandestinely applied, and the public doesn’t have any way to review it, that’s a problem. If we want to use that, it needs to be the result of a public debate.”

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Snowden: I wasn’t trying to override the government, what I wanted to do was inform the public. 

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“The government has never said any one of these stories have risked a human life. The result is that the public, the government and every society in the world has benefited. We have more secure communications and we have a civic interaction about what’s being done. Regardless of what’s happening to me, I took an oath to defend the U.S. constitution, and I saw the constitution was being violated on a massive scale, and I did what I had to do.” Applause.

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And with that, it’s over. Snowden gets half standing O, half people getting up to get to their next panel.