Snowden: Surveillance is 'setting fire' to the internet


Edward Snowden: Surveillance is 'setting fire' to the internet

Global mass surveillance conducted by the US and other governments is "setting fire to the future of the internet", Edward Snowden told a packed auditorium of technology innovators via video link in Austin at the South by Southwest Interactive conference on Monday.

He said: "You guys are all the firefighters, and we need you to help us fix this."

The former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, who fled the US last year after leaking thousands of documents that revealed his employer's extensive surveillance programmes, spoke to the audience through a choppy Google Hangout video connection running through multiple proxy servers to conceal his location.

Although Mr Snowden has granted a handful interviews to the media since his revelations made global headlines and led to his seeking asylum in Russia, it was one of his first live appearances before a general audience.

During his one-hour session moderated by his lawyer, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Mr Snowden urged internet and computing experts to design and produce encrypted communication technology that the average user can use.

Start Quote

I saw the constitution was violated on a massive scale”

End Quote Edward Snowden

Often delving into the technical details of internet security, calling it "defence against the dark arts in the digital realm", he said the systems currently available, if used by the general public, would make NSA bulk surveillance programmes much more difficult.

Mr Snowden also denounced what he saw as a change in US priorities since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, focusing on breaking communication security rather than protecting information.

"When you are the one country in the world that is sort of a vault that is more full than anyone else, it doesn't make sense for you to be attacking all day rather and never defend your vault," he said.

He also criticised the NSA's mass data collection system as being ineffective and a waste of resources. Instead, he said, the agency should be focusing on the type of people who present a threat.

Fugitive Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks via Skype at the South By SouthWest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, on 8 March 2014 Fugitive Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke to the festival at the weekend, calling the NSA a "rogue agency"

He cited Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan as individuals the government might have been able to catch if they had directed resources in the right areas.

"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."

Mr Snowden received a warm reception from the audience, and the question-and-answer session included words of praise in an email from internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who said his actions were "profoundly in the public interest".

The former NSA contractor's appearance was not without critics, however. US Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas wrote an open letter to the conference's organisers on Friday, urging them to deny the NSA leaker a public platform to air his views.

Mr Snowden's "only apparent qualification", he writes, "is his willingness to steal from his own government and then flee to that beacon of first amendment freedoms, the Russia of Vladimir Putin".

At the start of the session, Mr Wizner, who serves as Mr Snowden's legal adviser, replied that although freedom of expression protections are generally stronger in the US than in Russia, "if there's one person for whom that's not true, it's Ed Snowden".

If Mr Snowden were still in the US, he said, he'd probably be held by the government in solitary confinement.

Mr Snowden's session is the latest event in a technology conference that has been dominated by talk of internet security, government surveillance and privacy rights.

On Saturday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, also speaking via video, called the NSA a "rogue agency" that "has dirt on everyone".

Later on Monday, journalist Glenn Greenwald - who has worked with Mr Snowden to report on information contained in his secret NSA documents - will also have a video session.

In his final question, Mr Snowden was asked to assess the importance of his revelations.

"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 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."



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    If Snowden had any sense he'd realise retreating to Russia completely discredits his patriot guise. This guy just wants to watch people sweat. I bet he has quite the story built about himself in his head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    The reason why the services don't answer a question on "how many attacks have been prevented by this surveillance" is because the answer is unknowable. It's like saying "how many massacres have been stopped by guns". You can't get an answer because they were prevented.
    The only way to find out if an attack was prevented is to go back in time, do nothing, and than see if the attack happens.

  • Comment number 312.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    307., 308. & 309. As a guest in Russia Snowden cannot reveal anything further without revoking his temporary asylum terms - he needs a nation to give him full asylum, a nation that does not Kowtow to US pressure or has an extradition treaty with the US. The NSA/Patriot Act and US foreign sorties (Afghanistan, Iraq, et al) have made the US a pariah state: untrustworthy, self serving and corrupt!

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    #309 pc

    "it's the east who benefits.."

    -- are ´they´not also people ?

    The possibilities available for ´benefits´ after the fall of Communism have been squandered --mainly by the NATO expansion to the east and the EU used as its poodle --as in Ukraine.

    -- Georgia could move its troops under the nose of NATO troops present --and begin a war with Russia with no NATO condemnation.


Comments 5 of 314


Elsewhere on the BBC

  • BooksNew novels

    BBC Culture takes a look at ten new books to read in March


  • TomatoesClick Watch

    The smart garden that fits inside your house and provides fresh healthy food

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.