Snowden at SXSW: We need better encryption to save us from the surveillance state

Less than one percent of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s documents have been released to the public so far, but NSA mass surveillance is discussed at all good tech conferences; the interactive portion of South by Southwest (SXSW) is no exception. In fact, Hugh Forrest, Director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, said “surveillance and online privacy” are some of the “biggest topics of conversation.” Even Edward Snowden made an appearance, virtually, in a live-streamed event discussing “NSA's spying efforts on the technology community, and the ways in which technology can help to protect us from mass surveillance.”

In a letter to SXSW organizers, Rep. Mike Pompeo complained about SXSW giving Snowden a platform to talk about “privacy, surveillance, and online monitoring in the United States.” The Kansas congressman suggested that SXSW organizers might not have had “access to the full facts” when they invited Snowden to talk. Some of the “undisputed facts” about Snowden, according to Pompeo, are that “Mr. Snowden gives real whistleblowers a bad name” and he “cares more about personal fame than personal privacy.” Despite Pompeo’s request, SXSW did not withdraw Snowden’s invitation.

SXSW Interactive Director Forrest did admit to being worried that someone could try to take down or interfere with the video feed. However, the audio seemed to mostly cut out when Snowden was talking about James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, lying to Congress about metadata collection and our need for better accountability. The national security community blames Snowden for weakening national defenses, but Snowden said the “two officials in America who have harmed our internet” and our “national security” are Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander.

Snowden talking about online privacy, surveillance, encryption at SXSW

The Texas Tribune livestreamed the event as Snowden and the ACLU’s Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian talked about how technology can protect us from surveillance. While using seven proxies to speak at the SXSW event, Snowden said NSA mass surveillance is “setting fire to the future of internet.” Snowden called the tech people in the room at SXSW “all the firefighters.”

Building better end-to-end encryption is the proposed solution to save us from the surveillance state; encryption that happens “automatically and seamlessly” so that average users can use it. If we can make it so that encryption is so easy that even non-techies can use it, then mass surveillance will be ineffective. Then the NSA “cannot spy on innocent people” simply “because they can.” Encryption will make it “too expensive to spy on everyone.” Granted, if the NSA targets you, then they will just hack into your devices, but "hacking doesn't scale."

The security and crypto communities are ticked now that we know the NSA has worked to weaken encryption and insisted on backdoors that make the internet less secure. However, “Encryption does work,” Snowden insisted; he called it the “defense against the dark arts in the digital age.” Later, Snowden added that even using imperfect encryption, as it is now, will make it harder for the government to spy on you with its mass surveillance target-all approach.

But we cannot depend upon the big companies to have our best interests at heart. Soghoian called Firefox better for privacy purposes and Chrome better for security purposes. He pointed out that end-to-end encryption conflicts with business models such as Google’s, an advertising company that wants to be the middleman; we get “free” services, but it gets to share our data with third parties. Ironically, Google Hangout was used for the Snowden event.

When asked how to best protect ourselves right now, Snowden said to “use full disk encryption to protect your computer and devices,” and to also use “network encryption” like SSL. He also suggested using the browser add-ons NoScript and Ghostery as well as using TOR. If you encrypt your hardware and your network, then you are “far, far more hardened than the average user,” he said.

So the ACLU and Snowden put out a call to arms to the tech community such as those people in the room for the SXSW event. We need to “enforce our liberties” via tech standards.

Although former Google top dog Eric Schmidt agreed that implementing better encryption can protect from government spying, he is supposedly as wary of Snowden as he is the government. At an SXSW panel, Schmidt claimed, "We went to visit with Julian Assange, and both of us felt that who gets to decide what information is public is a pretty fundamental issue in democracy. I don't think we want random people leaking large amounts of data. I don't think that serves society."

Despite that comment, Schmidt “was careful to maintain Google's support of an open Internet free from censorship.” He said Google was “surprised” to learn that the NSA tapped into Google data centers to scoop up hundreds of millions of user records every day. Google security engineers were so “surprised” that they dropped F-bombs on the NSA. After implementing 2048-bit encryption, Schmidt claims Google is “pretty sure that any information that's inside of Google is safe from the government's prying eyes, including the U.S. government's."

Yet remaining “safe” from government snooping is almost an impossibly tall order. When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke at SXSW via Skype, he suggested that the NSA's “growing ability to surveil all people on the planet is almost there.”

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