In his first public appearance since fleeing the U.S. with thousands of secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents, whistleblower Edward Snowden spoke about privacy during the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. Bouncing between seven proxies and facilitated by Google Hangouts, Snowden’s hour-long live video chat was troublesome but it still allowed him to discuss a variety of topics and answer some questions from the public.
As Snowden began to answer questions from moderator Ben Wizner of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), he highlighted the potential for the NSA and the U.S. government to inflict lasting damage to what is arguably the most important communications system available, stating that they are “setting fire to the future of the Internet.”
While a large portion of the live Snowden interview dealt with technical security issues, the political aspect of the NSA’s spying was also of utmost importance. The first topic that Wizner brought up was Snowden’s decision to make an appearance at SXSW rather than in front of government officials in Washington D.C. He responded by saying that tech enthusiasts are the people who are actually going to fix the problem and protect the Internet.
"The tech community are the ones who could help fix this situation, more than people in Washington," Snowden said. "There's a tech response needed. It's the makers, thinkers, and the dev community who can help make sure we're safe."
Members of the tech community are not just individuals but rather companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, some of which are already beginning to change the way that user data is protected in light of the Snowden revelations from 2013. Encryption is one of the few suggestions that Snowden provided in numerous answers during the talk. The steps that are finally being taken by Internet-based companies suggest that people have finally realized that they cannot be passive when dealing with privacy and security.
In the Public Interest
After the interview portion of Snowden’s appearance, some members of the public were able to ask selected questions. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, requested the “privilege” of asking the first question. Bringing up an important point, Berners-Lee asked how Snowden would like to see national security agencies governed.
Snowden said that he does not trust the U.S. Congress to be in charge of the surveillance activities of the NSA and other organizations. Instead, he called for “public oversight," stating that “we need a watchdog that watches Congress.” Not only would Snowden like to see a watchdog appointed to monitor Congress but he would want such an organization that can also advocate for U.S. citizens and influence decisions.
Closing out the hour-long talk, Snowden received a standing ovation from the people at SXSW. Whether or not he will continue to make public appearances like this has yet to be seen, though speaking at SXSW appears to have been a good decision.