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."



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  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    why is ES holding onto the other 99% of his stolen cache of secrets? why release them in piece-meal fashion? ramping up the pressure for the west till a deal is made... like a game of blackmail, it's the east who benefits.. not us, nothings going to change... your 5 years too late, most still use twitface have 'smart' phones and are unpaid data-drones and just love to share in the cloud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    No one else was prepared to let Snowden in , fearing reprisals from some international bully. Let's have no more about the imagined coziness between Snowden and Russia. There is not a shred of evidence that anyone was endangered, or harmed but lots of embarrassment for people who should be shamed if not excoriated in public. The intelligence communities are sore, shown to be the real traitors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    'Whistleblower or Traitor'

    That first line in the report infuriated me beyond comprehension. Anybody that can label this gentleman a traitor for exposing the mass privacy invasion of corruption infested governments is a hero of the free man. If it wasn't for the likes of him exposing these vile politicians and their lackeys our right to privacy would be stripped and burned with impunity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    Kolin, here's an old gag from the former Soviet Union.

    Secret Police: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from us keeping records on you.

    Dissident: Why do you feel it necessary to keep records on me in the first place?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    #301 Scotch

    " Let's hope internet security never gets better than our governments can crack !"

    --I admire your faith in others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    301 says Snowden is no friend to the West.

    Please do not lump me in with you. I 'd rather have my gall bladder removed while awake, with a pickle fork. Stick to the US please. And as for being a friend he is a friend to me and most Americans. Those who don't think so will come around, even you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    What surprises me is that the general public were shocked by his leaked documents. Spying on the public has gone on throughout history. Nothing to hide nothing to worry about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    289 Lucy

    "Snowden, why can't you let USA out of our pain here over all this?
    If you truly are an American, why can't you help USA instead of hurt us?"

    Snowden hasn't hurt you but the men responsible for the illegal surveillance of your friends and enemies alike. You will never be trusted again

    Don't shoot the messenger!

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    Snowden is undoubtedly no friend to the West. Does he think the Russians (or the Chinese) are goody goodies? None of his "exposes" have done anything to make me fail safer - the reverse. Let's hope internet security never gets better than our governments can crack!

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    #297 Spluffy

    What caused it-- was NATO (US and UK)

    The EU told Ukraine it could NOT also be a part of Putin´s trading area AND the EU.

    Russia rightly saw this as a danger to its military base in Crimea.

    --and opened the Pandora´s Box of making Russian nationality and language 2nd class --as in Lithuania.

    Poland wants US- NATO anti-missile system --another screw-up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    297 spluffy - perhaps Mr Putin only invaded the Crimea after getting the information on how the American/British/Nato organisation would react

    You see, this exactly sums up the paranoid fringe thinking, as if that was ever the intention, maybe 58% Russian speaking Crimea had nothing to do with it!, ridiculous. Bosnian Ethnic War springs to mind.

    The Internet assists lunatic ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    Unusually, the Mardell blog looks dead --anyone have any problems with it ?

    I can still only ´sign in´ to any blog by ´dis -enable´ Java Script (Mac Safari) --results NOT optimal.

    --but better than nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    perhaps Mr Putin only invaded the Crimea after getting the information on how the American/British/Nato organisation would react

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    #278 F1Fan
    "The internet is a very useful tool not only for the masses but also for sophisticated criminals and terrorists. Therefore, it is essential that it is policed - if not, can you imagine what our world will be like?"

    Yes but when it comes to the intelligence services the line between 'criminal' and 'policeman' can get pretty blurred and often disappears completely. Snowden = Hero.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    I'm a voting Kansan....Mr. Pompeo is [in my humble opinion] a mental midget when it comes to the freedom of speech -among other misguided political notions this man espouses. We are ashamed of him. He bought his way up the stairs to the capitol. He's not a native Kansan and has used the ignorance of Kansans to promote his agenda. Beware.


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