Whistle-blower and activist Edward Snowden talks Internet surveillance and how our data gets used

After throwing out into the open the US government and other countries' methods for spying on all of us, whistle-blower and activist Edward Snowden spoke at SXSW — and for the first time in public — about why he felt compelled to start a global debate on Internet surveillance. And why he would do it all over again.

Whistler blower is too narrow a word to describe Edward Snowden, Pulitzer-winning journalist Barton Gellman told an audience at SXSW, the music, film and tech conference in Austin, Texas, on Monday immediately before the first public speaking appearance by the former US intelligence contractor responsible for what the Pentagon calls the biggest “theft” of U.S. secrets in history. “Lantern-holder” or “light-bringer” would be a more apt description for Snowden, suggested Gellman, who has been one of the leading journalists on the Snowden story since it broke eight months ago.

In that time, the revelations of mass-scale and indiscriminate spying on citizens forced Internet giants to better encrypt their data and answer tough questions about everyone’s right to privacy. From Davos to here at SXSW, it has pushed the issue of Internet surveillance to the top of the agenda. In just a few months, Snowden’s revelations about the US National Security Agency, or NSA, have had a massive impact, said Christopher Soghoian, the lead technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, speaking alongside Snowden, who appeared onscreen by videolink from Russia, where he has been since shortly after the leaks. “I want to be very clear about one thing: Ed’s disclosures have improved Internet security,” Soghoian said.

Snowden opened his remarks by saying he chose to speak to the SXSW audience because he thought the people that the event draws had the power to help protect not only Internet users, but the Internet itself.

“The NSA and the global mass surveillance that’s occurring in all these countries — it’s not just the US and it’s important to remember this is a global issue — they’re setting fire to the future of the Internet,” Snowden said. “The people who are in this room now, you guys are all the firefighters and we need you to help us fix this.”

The problem remains that most of our information on the Internet is not encrypted, making it easy for anyone from governments to hackers to criminals to access and grab ahold of it, Snowden and Soghoian said. Data is also being stored for years and how it might be used is often unclear.

Data should not be collected without our knowledge and consent

“Data should not be collected without people’s knowledge and consent,” Snowden said. “If data is being clandestinely acquired and the public doesn’t have the right to review it and it’s not legislatively authorised, or it’s not reviewed by the courts … that’s a problem. If we want to use that it must be resolved by a public debate.”

Snowden said he was concerned because in his work for the NSA, he could see a widening gap between the interest of the state and the interest of people. “We get to the point where we have to marry those up, or it gets harder and harder and we risk losing control of our representative democracy,” he said.

Before revealing the NSA surveillance system to the world Snowden studied previous whistleblowers who had failed to have a longterm impact, Gellman, who travelled to Russia last year to meet Snowden, explained earlier in the day. His strategy as an activist was to collect incontrovertible proof in the form of documents that would make it impossible for U.S. authorities to change the topic. “He has got to have exceeded every plausible estimation about the impact,” Gellman said, observing eight months later new revelations keep emerging from the documents that keep putting the issue back on front pages.

Having to speak from Russia via a warren of proxy servers, Snowden was asked as a final question whether it was all worth the personal price.

“Would I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something I had to do. I took an oath to support and defend the constitution and I thought the constitution was violated on a massive scale,” he managed to answer before being interrupted by applause.

“The interpretation of the constitution had been changed in secret from no unreasonable search and seizure to any seizure is fine, just don’t search it. That’s something the public ought to know,” he said. Many in the audience rose to their feet as he concluded. But Snowden couldn’t see them.

See Snowden’s SXSW video appearance here: