AUSTIN, Texas (CBS Houston/AP) — National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden spoke at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive Festival.
But the former NSA contractor did not appear in person at the conference in Austin on Monday. Instead, Snowden spoke via a video connection through Google Hangouts in front of an image of Article 1 of the United States Constitution.
Snowden participated remotely as he remains in Moscow where he’s living in temporary asylum, reportedly making use of seven proxy servers in order to avoid being located.
During the interactive talk, Snowden addressed the information connection policies of the NSA directly.
“When we think about what’s happened with the NSA in the last decade … it’s nothing that we ever asked for,” he said. “It’s not what we wanted, [and] it’s something we need to protect against.”
Snowden also asserted that the NSA is “setting fire to the … Internet,” according to a full transcript of the talk on the blog Inside, and described attendees of the Festival – as well as members of the technology community at large – as “firefighters” who can “fix this.”
He later singled out former NSA director Michael Hayden and current NSA director Keith Alexander as “two officials who have harmed our internet security, and actually, our national security.”
Christopher Soghoian, a principal technologist and senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project who was on the panel during the Snowden talk, said that the government has “prioritized offense rather than defense” in regards to collecting information.
On the point of mass surveillance, Snowden simply stated: “It’s never helped us.”
“We’re monitoring everyone’s communications instead of suspects’ communications,” he later added, noting that the broad reach of the surveillance program allowed pertinent information to fall through the proverbial cracks.
During a later portion of the talk, Snowden said that there is also a need for increased oversight for government itself, adding that “we need a watchdog that watches Congress.”
“We can’t have officials like James Clapper who can lie to … Congress and face … not even a criticism,” he said.
When asked by one participant as to whether he feels the NSA practices for information gathering might inspire other nations to adopt similar policies, he said yes, and that “every citizen of every country has something to lose” if that occurs.
Later, one participant inquired as to whether or not Snowden knew of ways to protect one’s information. He offered a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reply that may have referenced J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular series of books about fictional wizard Harry Potter.
“Encryption does work. It’s the defense against the dark arts in the digital realm,” he said. “Let’s put it this way – the United States government has assembled a massive investigation team into me personally, into my work with journalists and they still have no idea … what documents were provided to the journalists, what they have, what they don’t have. Because of encryption works.”
Toward the end of the talk, Snowden said that “every society in the world has benefited” from his disclosures, and if he had to do everything over again, he “absolutely” would as he felt the “Constitution was being violated on a massive scale.”
On the official SXSW website, the talk was billed as “A Virtual Conversation With Edward Snowden.”
“In this session, the NSA whistle-blower will urge the entrepreneurs, innovators, makers, hackers, geeks, founders, investors and leading-edge thinkers who attend SXSW Interactive to build better systems that better protect user privacy,” the site’s description of the talk continued.”
He was received warmly by those at SXSW, with several of his comments garnering applause.
“I just wanted to also note that without Ed’s disclosures many of the tech companies would not have improved their security either at all or at the rate that they did,” Soghoian added according to Inside’s transcript, calling him the “largest and most profound whistle-blower in history.”
Snowden faces felony charges in the U.S. after revealing the agency’s mass surveillance program by leaking thousands of classified documents to media outlets.
Fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke at the conference in a similar manner on Saturday. Assange is living in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
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