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From Leaker to Speaker

Edward Snowden appeared via secure video to motivate developers at SXSW.

If Edward Snowden hadn’t fled to Russia to seek political asylum, he’d probably be incommunicado on a U.S. naval brig somewhere. Instead, he’s delivering remarks to huge crowds of developers.

edward snowden
Big time: Edward Snowden as he appeared by video at the SXSW conference.

Today, Snowden appeared via videoconference to participate in a keynote session at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference in Austin. Snowden, appearing larger than life in front of a backdrop of the U.S. Constitution, led off with this soundbite about the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA):

They are setting fire to the future of the Internet.  And the people in the room now, you guys, are the firefighters.

Starting last summer, Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, leaked a trove of secret documents revealing that the spy agency was conducting widespread surveillance of Americans and others. The leaks have global political implications, and President Obama has vowed to reform spying practices.

But at SXSW, the message was more about companies, which  haven’t necessarily paid much attention to security even since the disclosures, according to Christopher Soghoian, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, who shared the stage with Snowden. According to Soghoian, commercial software isn’t as secure as it should be. For many companies “security is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all,” he said. “That is what has enabled global surveillance by the U.S. and other countries.”

The crowd at SXSW was immensely sympathetic to Snowden, who was referred to as “Ed” by moderators and was cheered several times. He’s not just a civil rights whistleblower anymore. He’s a motivational speaker. As Snowden told the crowd:

There is a policy response that needs to occur. But there is also a technical response. And it’s the makers, the thinkers, it’s the development community, that can really craft the solution, that have to do it.

Not everyone is happy with Snowden’s stardom. Prior to the conference, U.S. congressman Mike Pompeo, also a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to organizers, calling Snowden a “traitor” and wondering why the onetime “systems administrator” was being touted as an expert on privacy and surveillance.

“Mr. Snowden cares more about personal fame than personal privacy,” Pompeo wrote.

Snowden doesn’t give that impression. He is a clear, thoughtful speaker and, in many ways, restrained in his remarks. He keeps making the same few points. Officials lied to Congress about NSA surveillance, prompting him to leak the documents. Also, he says, encryption technology is the best way to foil large-scale eavesdropping.

Indeed, in the eight months since Snowden’s revelations began, many large companies have expanded their use of encryption, including Yahoo, which previously had left users’ e-mail vulnerable to government snoops. They ended up collecting messages and webcam images with ease.

According to Soghoian, this change in corporate behavior is one of the biggest effects of Snowden’s coming forward: 

There are people [who] think Ed is wrong. But let me be clear about one thing. Ed’s disclosure has improved Internet security, and not only from bulk government surveillance, but also from common identity thieves and stalkers. It took the largest and most profound whistleblower in history to get these companies to finally prioritize security.

That’s not to say the security problem is solved. The business model of large companies is to collect consumer information and repackage or resell it for advertising. That means they aren’t too interested in the very toughest forms of security and encryption, which aren’t user friendly and could complicate their business models.

But Soghoian said that people in industry, especially cryptography experts at large companies who implement security schemes, are very angry about government snooping and have become “radicalized” by the NSA revelations.

The tools that come out in the next years will be much more secure and that is because the people in that part of the tech community feel like they were lied to.

We have Ed Snowden to thank for that. You can find a video of his SXSW comments here.

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