SURVEILLANCE WHISTLEBLOWER Edward Snowden has taken part in a video conversation at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference and called for more accessible encryption tools.
The subject of the conversation, which was hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, was whether communications are secure and if they can be trusted. They can, said Snowden, but only with some third party help and the use of end to end, machine to machine encryption.
The use of strong encryption is key and the panel agreed that Snowden's revelations have improved the security landscape. The whistleblower said that technology companies need to help make encryption more accessible and less complex. "Encryption does work," he said, calling it "the defence against the dark arts for the digital realm."
Snowden said that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has created an "adversarial internet". He added that while policy changes are needed, technological changes will be the most effective.
"[We must] craft solutions that are safe", he said. "End to end encryption makes bulk surveillance impossible. There is more oversight, and they won't be able to pitch exploits at every computer in the world without getting caught."
He said that there has already been "a lot of progress" but added that systems are still too complex. "If you have to go a command line, people aren't going to use it."
Snowden called on attendees, the technical people who work for these companies, to play their parts. "You guys are all the firefighters, and we need you to help us fix this," he said.
When he was asked to recommend tools that the man in the street could use, he recommended TOR, which the other two would not support because they said it lacks ease of use.
As for claims from some quarters that his surveillance revelations have done harm, Snowden disputed this, and said that before the government focused on attacking, and that "leaks improve security".
He added that mass surveillance led to a lack of focus and missed leads. "We've had tremendous [intelligence] failures," he pointed out. "We spent all this money, we spent all this time hacking into Google's and Facebook's back end to look at their databases," he said. "What did we get out of that? We got nothing... We need policy advocates and public oversight. We need a watchdog that watches Congress."
As proof of how well encryption works, Snowden said that despite its best efforts the US government has not come close to finding out what documentation he took and has shared.
He was asked, would he do it again? Yes, came the definite answer. "Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to know," he said. "I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw the Constitution was violated on a massive scale."
The talk was announced last week, and protested this weekend by US congressman Mike Pompeo. Kansas Republican representative Pompeo is not a fan of Snowden and called him an attention seeking self-promoter. He asked SXSW to halt Snowden's appearance, but he was ignored.
Snowden was joined at the event in Austin Texas by ACLU technology leader Christopher Soghoian and Ben Wizner, a First Amendment advocate and director of the ACLU speech, privacy and technology project in a talk entitled "A Virtual Conversation With Edward Snowden".
The event was expected to be heavily attended, and SXSW recommended that people turn up at least an hour and a half before it started. Attendees with Gold or Platinum credentials could attend. µ
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