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In a rare appearance, and via Google Hangout from Russia where he has been granted political asylum, Edward Snowden urged thousands of tech enthusiasts attending the SXSW Interactive Conference to become ‘firefighters’ in the jostle between government surveillance and privacy issues.
To some he’s a hero, to others — like the congressman who asked SXSW to cancel the panel on the grounds that Snowden’s freedom of speech doesn’t extend to Russia — the former CIA employee is a traitor. But to the organisers of this year’s SXSW, the issue of spying and privacy is one that deserves to be explored during this time in Austin, Texas.
Together with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s virtual conversation on Saturday and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s one, SXSW has dedicated a lot of panel time to the subject.
Interactive director Hugh Forrest, who denied the complaint to cancel Snowden’s hangout, said he’s proud and excited about what could come out of if all: “Our goal here is to be an open platform. I’d love to have the NSA giving a lecture… It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done, in terms of political and cultural relevance. It’s a big deal.”
Snowden, in his first live conversation since he disclosed thousands of classified documents from the National Security Administration (NSA) and CIA in June 2013, and was subsequently charged with espionage, told the crowd of about 3 000 people that innovators at SXSW and the greater tech community should build better encryption into the next generation of technology.
Snowden says the surveillance gathered by the NSA, the organisation he used to be contracted to, has created an adversarial Internet. “It’s not what we asked for. It’s not what we want,” he said. “There’s a policy response that needs to occur. There’s also a technical response that needs to occur.”
Snowden believes it’s people like those who attend SXSW that can ‘fix’ the situation and “enforce our rights though technical standards.”
“They’re setting fire to the global Internet and you guys in the room are the global firefighters,” he said. Snowden believes accountability is key: “We have an oversight model that could work. The problem is when the overseers are not interested in oversight. We need public advocates, public representatives, public oversight,” he said, including “a watchdog that watches Congress.”
He maintains there will be international ripples if this doesn’t happen. “Americans have the most to lose by being hacked, but every person in every country have something to lose. If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will accept that as a green light to do the same,” he said.
Moderating the discussion in Austin were Snowden’s American Civil Liberties Union attorney, Ben Wizner, and Christopher Soghoian, from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
Snowden says he has not regrets about his leak – deemed the most significant in US history by Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. “I didn’t do it to take on the government. I did it so that people could be informed about what was actually happening.”