Edward Snowden gives a call to action to the tech community

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on March 10, 2014

From The News Desk

Austin is abuzz today. Edward Snowden graced South by Southwest's presence -- or, I should say the specter of Edward Snowden. Sitting in front of a green screen projecting the image of the US Constitution sat a Google Hangout projection of Snowden, which came to us live via seven proxies. Unsurprisingly, he was met with rapturous applause from three cramped auditoriums in the Austin Convention Center. Interviewing him were Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian, both of whom work at the American Civil Liberties Union. And their admiration for the exiled whistleblower was forthright.

The hourlong conversation could best be characterized as a call to action to the technology community and a rehashing of what has happened over the last year. This makes sense, since this was an event held at the techie-est conference of them all. "There's a technical response that needs to occur," Snowden began the interview with. "[The NSA is] setting fire to the future of the Internet… and you guys are all the firefighters."

Soghoian, who serves as the ACLU's Principal Technologist with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, concurred. The tools we use online now are simply "not as secure as they could be." He called for the audience -- most of whom should know more than a thing or two about technology -- to start thinking about ways to create better, more encrypted online tools that the less technologically savvy public can easily use.

Part of the problem that all three participants alluded to was the nature of private surveillance due to business needs. Soghoian and Wizner admitted to the prevalence of large company business models (think Google and Yahoo) that require data collection in some form. At the same time, the sea change in security measures these companies have adopted over the last year, Soghoian deemed positive and "surprising."

Snowden (obviously) agreed, but surprisingly wasn't calling for a complete halt of data collection by private businesses. His insistence was on end-to-end encryption so the government couldn't get a hold of this information, not for companies to stop the practices completely. Companies need to be ethical with what they collect and the length of time they possess it, he believes. For example, one online service was hacked earlier last year, and some of Snowden's information -- including his password -- became publicly available. The problem is that he created that account in 2010, so why did the service still have his information?

Following his call for easy and defaulted end-to-end encryption for ubiquitous Web services, Snowden refuted the fact that his leaks made the US less safe, something NSA director Keith Alexander recently stated at a conference. He pointed to the idea that the United States' role as a super power is predicated on our intellectual property, which the feds have been consistently attacking. The primary focus of the US's defensive strategy should be on protecting our information and not unilaterally attacking that of others.

"When you are the one country in the world that has a vault that's more full than anyone else's, it doesn't make sense to be attacking all day and not defending your vault," Snowden said.

When it comes down to it, the conversation wasn't that surprising or informative to anyone within the technology community. (That's, unfortunately, the nature of the beast when it comes to conversations at huge conferences.) There has been and continues to be a call for better security measures by anyone who understands just how bad some companies' security features are.

Still, having such a controversial man speaking about the ramifications of his actions, and providing a real call to action was quite a treat. And definitely better than Julian Assange -- who was telecast in two days ago -- and came across like a slightly egoistic man waxing philosophic about the immoral nature of the world.

No matter your opinion on Snowden's actions, his call for better security is one that should be heard and heeded. And, hopefully, this is a call that will be taken up by the techies sitting in the audience with me, watching Snowden's choppy projection with bated breath.