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Edward Snowden, speaking at SXSW, calls tech community to action

In one of South by SouthWest Interactive's most high-profile sessions this year, NSA leaker Edward Snowden speaks via Google Hangout on Monday, March 10, 2014, about eroding online privacy.

AUSTIN, Texas — Appearing on a screen against the backdrop of the U.S. Constitution, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden spent an hour  Monday offering practical advice and calls to action specific to the large audience at the South by Southwest Interactive festival.

“South by Southwest and the technology community, the people in the room in Austin, they’re the folks who can really fix things, who can enforce our rights through technical standards,” Snowden said.

It was Snowden’s first public-speaking engagement since he leaked classified documents last year, and one of three SXSW sessions featuring newsmaking names in the world of privacy. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke on Saturday and journalist Glenn Greenwald was featured in a session Monday afternoon. All the appearances were virtual, done by videoconference in front of a live audience.

Privacy and security have become a major theme of this year’s Interactive festival with Snowden, Assange and Greenwald as speakers, but some weren’t pleased with these choices. U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, D-Kan., sent an open letter to the festival asking that SXSW uninvite Snowden.

The festival did not agree and has said it has a long-standing policy of creating a “big tent” for diverse points of view, even on controversial topics.

Snowden centered his presentation, “A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden,” on the privacy crisis he said is in danger of spreading to many other countries.

Questions for the presentation were submitted via Twitter in addition to questions and comments from co-presenters Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU was instrumental in getting Snowden to agree to the session. He has been in exile in Russia, and his videoconference chat was bounced through seven “proxy” locations.

Snowden said that such tools must pass the “Glenn Greenwald test,” referring to the former Guardian reporter who broke the NSA story. Snowden believes any journalist should be able to find tools that allow completely secure communication without government snooping.

Unlike Julian Assange’s presentation on Saturday, which drew similar attention and was largely a recap of the potential dangers ahead, Snowden’s was full of actionable suggestions.

He said that people can make their communication more secure by using whole-disk encryption, using network encryption, using Web browser plug-ins to make connections more secure and using Tor, a tool for preserving online anonymity.

“Encryption works,” Snowden said. “It’s not an arcane black art.” At the very least, the panelists suggested, using encryption makes mass surveillance too expensive to be practical for the NSA.

Unfortunately, Soghoian suggested, most Internet users are going to choose the cheapest service and whatever default apps and tools are made available on their phones. He asked if people would be willing to pay $5 more to have encrypted tools on their devices by default.

Snowden expressed no remorse about his current situation or his decision to leak documents.

“Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we have to work through,” he said. “I took an oath” to uphold the Constitution and felt compelled to report its violation.

“If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other country … will accept it as a green light to do the same,” Snowden said. Snowden also urged more oversight of the NSA and suggested a watchdog group to monitor Congress.

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