Edward Snowden spoke out against the practices of the National Security Agency (NSA) at South By Southwest (SXSW) on Monday and encouraged tech companies to make serious changes to their own policies in order to ensure that every American's data is more secure. He also advocated for increased data encryption, as well as the creation of built-in encryption tools that are easy to use.
Snowden spoke via Google Hangouts to a packed crowd of over 3,000 people at the Austin Convention Center in Texas. Many also watched the livestream of the event to hear what Snowden had to say. Snowden had personally secured the video conference and was running several encryption tools during the talk, so that his signal was untraceable. The video frequently froze and the audio occasionally cut out, but Snowden's message was loud and clear.
Behind Snowden was a green screen image of the U.S Constitution. "We the People," written in the large, scrolling script of America's founder fathers, was clear to see behind Snowden's head as he spoke about the right to privacy and liberty in the United States. He called upon tech companies like Google, Yahoo and others to reform their own policies to increase their users' security.
He stated that although it is also the government's responsibility to protect its citizens, current policy contradicts that mandate in the supposed interest of national security. Snowden argued that if the tech industry and the American people come together to protect the security of their data, the government will not be able to keep up the mass surveillance program it currently has. It simply won't be cost effective to investigate everyone's data if there is enough encryption in place to prevent mass data collection. Then, the government will be forced to target only a few people, you know, the ones who are actually a threat to national security.
Snowden also emphasized that this kind of surveillance takes place everywhere in the world, so other countries' tech companies should also act fast.
"The NSA, the sort of global mass surveillance that's occurring in all of these countries, not just the U.S. - and it's important to remember that this is a global issue - they're setting fire to the future of the Internet," Snowden said. "And the people who are in this room now - you guys are all the firefighters. And we need you to help us fix it."
Although Snowden stated that "data should not be collected without peoples' knowledge or consent," he did acknowledge that some data collection was necessary and potentially harmless, so long as it's not stored for too long. For example, when Google uses your data to give you restaurant suggestions or when Facebook sends you an advertisement for Game of Thrones because it saw your status about Jon Snow, that's fine - the companies just shouldn't hold on to your data for all eternity.
"It's not that you can't collect any data," said Snowden. "You should only collect the data and hold it as long as necessary for the nature of the business."
Massive and indiscriminate data collection, as well as storage can threaten our individual privacy, but it can also harm national security, said Snowden.
"We've reached the point that a majority of people's telephone conversations are being recorded...but it has no value at all. It's never helped us...We've actually had incredible intelligence failures... and that lack of focus has caused us to miss leads that we had," Snowden said.
"We're monitoring everyone's communications instead of suspects' communications," Snowden said, referencing the spectacular failure of U.S. intelligence and security agencies to react in time to stop the Boston Marathon bombers, even though Russia had warned them about the Tsarnaev brothers.
Targeted surveillance of known and potential criminals or terrorists perhaps could have aided the U.S. government to prevent the deadly bombing. Instead, the NSA collects so much data that it can't even read through it all. Since most of the data is meaningless and has no bearing on national security concerns, it is, quite simply, a waste of time, money and resources.
Perhaps the best example of how ridiculous this kind of mass surveillance is, is the Yahoo webcam scandal. Was it really productive to pay GCHQ agents to watch private strip teases? No, clearly not, no.
He also said that if America continues to set a bad example for the rest of the world with the NSA, other countries will do the same, making the Internet a more dangerous place for everyone.
"If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, the international community will accept that as the green light" to enact similar policies, Snowden said.
After a certain point in the conversation, the moderators turned things over to audience questions. Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, which just turned 25, was the first audience member to question Snowden. After thanking Snowden for his services to the world, he asked the former NSA contractor what he would change about government surveillance programs.
"We need public oversight ... some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us. We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we're not informed, we can't consent to these policies," he said.
At the end of the discussion, when asked if he would expose the NSA again, if he could do it all over, Snowden did not hesitate.
"Would I do it again? Absolutely. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to," Snowden said.
"I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution," he added, as the auditorium burst into applause. "And I saw the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale,"
Hero, martyr or villain - no matter how you view Edward Snowden, you should be thanking him.