Edward Snowden at SXSW 2014 – Surveillance and Encryption

Edward Snowden took part in a conference at SXSW from Russia where he has been granted temporary asylum. The talk was about the nature of the surveillance program established by the United States and especially how to change it to protect ordinary internet users. Snowden who has been accused of treason and whose passport has been revoked by the US government continues to fight for what he believes in. While US officials claim that his leak represents a threat to the national security as it might have ended up in the hands of intelligence agencies in China and Russia, or that it has simply weakened American cyber-defences as NSA Director, General Keith Alexander, suggested it just last week, Snowden replies “these things are improving national security, these are improving the communication not just of American, but everyone in the world. Because we rely on the same standard, we rely on the ability to trust our communications, and without that, we don’t have anything.” According to him, his revelation encouraged governments, companies and individuals to fully realise the importance of protecting their online activities and data, “the public has benefited, the government has benefited, and every society in the world has benefited.”

Despite his personal sacrifices, Snowden declared that he did not regret what he has done: “When it comes to the question, would I do this again? The answer is yes. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we have the right to know.”And to prove his point, he criticized the NSA’s surveillance system of harvesting communication data en masse, “we are monitoring everyone’s communications rather than suspects’ communications. If we hadn’t spent so much on mass surveillance, if we had followed traditional patterns, we might have caught Tamerlan Tsarnaev [one of the Boston Marathon bomber].” He also pointed at James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, who lied to the Congress about the surveillance program and admitted it: “He (Clapper) can lie to the country, lie to the Congress, and face not even a criticism.”

However, change is possible. As expert in the field, tech companies can help in the process by first changing the way they deal with data: “you (companies) should only collect the data, and hold it as long is necessary, for the operation of your business.” Snowden invited companies such as Google and Facebook to be more responsible when dealing with their users’ data. Change could directly come from them especially since they have the knowledge, the skills and the expertise.

Through the video, Snowden was directly encouraging entrepreneurs, innovators, makers, hackers, geeks, founders, investors and leading-edge thinkers to build better systems that better protect user privacy. According to him, the same way technology has enabled government to establish massive surveillance program, technology can also help individual protects them. To do so, Snowden encouraged the tech industry and the tech community to work together on a better way to secure private data of billions of people: “I would say South by Southwest and the technology community – the people who are in Austin right now – they are folks who can really fix things, who can enforce our rights through technical standards even when Congress hasn’t yet gotten to the point of creating legislation to protect our rights in the same manner.”  One of the solutions would be encryption that he described as “the defence against the dark arts in the digital realm.” By encrypting hard drives and online activities, any users would be sure to protect their privacy and activities from any surveillance program: “If you are a target of the NSA, it is game over no matter what unless you are taking really technical steps to protect yourself.” For instance, the US government is still not 100% of what information Snowden leaked since he encrypted all the files. One of the solution to surveillance is encryption.

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