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SXSW: Privacy, Surveillance and Media

Edward SnowdenThe focus on Internet privacy and surveillance at SXSW 2014 had implications for both techies and media makers.

Edward Snowden’s precise and elegant presentation, delivered via Google Hangout (irony duly noted) and along seven (!) proxies, was well-paired with another beamed-in interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald, who reinforced Snowden’s concern.

Snowden’s presentation was primarily directed at techies. He wanted them to design their software with encryption built in from the start. As he pointed out, right now security is usually a last thought in software design.

And he doesn’t want just any encryption, either. He wants end-to-end encryption, the kind that makes it impossible for anyone along the way between sender and receiver to get at it. Don’t expect end-to-end encryption to come from the Googles and Facebooks of this world, because their business model is built on spying on us.

He’s convinced that people would pay for privacy, if businesses innovated services designed with end-to-end encryption.

What’s at Stake.

What’s at stake, he argued, along with the two ACLU staffers who conducted the conversation with him, is nothing less than our basic civil rights. “The NSA has advanced policies that erode Fourth Amendment protections through the proactive seizure of communications,” he said. And furthermore, it threatens the future of communication. “The NSA is setting fire to the future of the Internet and you guys are the firefighters.”

It’s not as if grabbing everybody’s information all the time is making us safer, he argued. Neither the U.S. nor any other government has been able to show that doing so has resulted in stopping terrorist acts. Indeed, harvesting information wholesale is just clogging the system.

But even worse, he argued to an audience rich in media makers, the most valuable asset the U.S. has is its intellectual property. And the government’s systematic weakening and corrupting of Internet security endangers it: 

When you’re the country whose vault is more full than anyone else’s in the world it doesn’t make sense to attack all day without defending. It doesn’t make sense to weaken standards on vaults worldwide to create a back door that anyone can walk into. This weakens our national security and everyone else’s because we all rely on the same standards.

Without security, we have nothing. Our economy can’t succeed.

As he had the week before in a presentation to the E.U., Snowden emphasized that all leaked documents were being analyzed by professional journalists, among them Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald reinforced Snowden’s concern that reliable, easy-to-use, end-to-end encryption was critical to security. (He’s given up on the idea of Congress doing any real oversight.) He has evidence, he said, that the NSA is spying on his work, and he also knows that the most “shocking and significant” stories are still to come. But he’ll keep at it, because he believes that people need fearless, independent journalism to know what’s at stake, and defend democracy.

Snowden continues to live and support himself in Russia because he has been charged as a spy and traitor in the U.S., and because other nations where he has applied for asylum, including many E.U. nations, have refused as a result of U.S. pressure. The ACLU has started a petition for Snowden to receive due process in a court of law, if tried.