Live From SXSW: A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden

March 12, 2014       Joleen Ong      

Online security and privacy were key topics at SXSW Interactive, with a theme dedicated to Social and Privacy. The profound whistleblower of the online privacy movement showed up at SXSW: Edward Snowden. Virtually, that is, and he screamed “fire” in a crowded room.

He alleged that the Internet’s future is burning down and went into detail.

Appearing in front of a green screen image of the U.S. Constitution, Snowden’s videoconference connection from Russia was spotty; he was routed through seven proxies in the interest of security to virtually make it. The discussion was moderated in Austin, Texas by two representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Speech, Privacy and Technology Project: Ben Wizner, director, and Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst. The audience was encouraged to send questions via Twitter with the hashtag #asksnowden.

As one of the most highly anticipated sessions of SXSW, conference organizers simultaneously broadcast the session in three overflow rooms to accommodate seating demands and expectations. It was also streamed live on the website of the Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization. Graphic recorders also illustrated the key takeaways from this session

According to Snowden, he chose to speak at SXSW because, “people who are in the room in Austin…they are the folks that really fix things who can enforce our rights for technical standards.” He added, “[The NSA] are setting fire to the future of the internet. The people who are in this room, now you guys are all the firefighters and we need you to help us fix this.”

The one-hour conversation focused on the state of Internet security since Snowden’s disclosures, and how technology can help protect individuals from mass surveillance.

When Wizner asked how oversight activities can be more accountable, Snowden explained the need to change the “structure [of the] oversight model that works,” and the secret “FISA courts.” He also added, “we need public advocates. We need public representatives. We need public oversight…We need a watchdog that watches Congress. Something that can tell us ‘hey these guys didn’t tell you that he just lied to you.” Because otherwise how do we know? If we are not informed we can’t consent to these policies.’ And I think that is danger.”

The conversation also touched on the sheer impact of Snowden’s disclosures to spur public debate. “In the last eight months the big Silicon Valley technology companies have really improved their security in a way that was surprising to many of us who have been urging them for years to do so,” said Soghoian. He added, “You saw companies like Yahoo! finally turning on SSL encryption. Apple fixed a bug in its address book app that allowed Google users’ address books to be transmitted over networks in unencrypted form. Without Ed’s disclosures there wouldn’t have been as much pressure for these tech companies to encrypt their information.”

“I think we are slowly getting to the point where telling your customers ‘hey, $5 a month for encrypted communications [where] no one can watch you.’ I think that is something that many consumers may be willing to pay for,” suggested Soghoian.

When asked what steps an average person can take to ensure a more secure digital experience? Snowden offered some suggestions. “For me there are a couple of key technologies; there is full disk encryption to protect your actual physical computer and devices in case they are seized. Then there are network encryption which are things like SSL that added sort of transparency we can’t help that,” Snowden explained.

“You can install a couple of browser plug ins, NoScript to block Active X attempts in the browser, Ghostery to block ads and tracking cookies,” he suggested. “But there is also TOR, a mixed routing network which is very important because it is encrypted from the user through the ISP to the end of sort of a cloud a network of routers that you go through.”

Similar to a question that was asked of Julian Assange during his Friday virtual session, Snowden was asked: “Where you sit now…do you feel that it was worth the price that you’ve paid in order to bring us to this moment?”

“What I wanted to do was inform the public so they could make a decision and provide their consent for what we should be doing,” said Snowden. “The result is that the public has benefited, the government has benefited, and every society in the world has benefited….We are in secure place. We have more secure communications. And we are going to have a better sort of civic interaction as a result of understanding what’s being done in our name and what’s being done against us. And so when it comes to “will I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes.”

For more information about the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, visit: