Edward Snowden Comes to SXSW

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Brought to you by Google.

This morning, Edward Snowden appeared before the SXSW Interactive tech conference via a long-distance video call from his Russian exile. The room containing Snowden’s talk wasn’t entirely full – partly because there was a Lena Dunham panel going on simultaneously down the hall – but it still brimmed with energy as Snowden prepared to make some of his first remarks to a U.S. audience, in a talk that one member of Congress tried to convince SXSW to cancel.

“Is he able to see us?” said a man settling into his seat behind me. “I want him to be able to see the standing ovation.”

Snowden, who appeared in front of a “We the People” backdrop on a video call that was routed through seven different proxy servers, was able to see just fine. But he didn’t get a standing ovation, perhaps because SXSW is more a marketing bonanza than a collection of hardcore hackers these days. He did, however, get to sound off once more on the NSA’s data-collection techniques, answer questions from admirers like internet godfather Tim Berners-Lee, and give his thoughts on the participation of tech companies like Google and Facebook in the national surveillance apparatus.

“They’re setting fire to the future of the internet,” Snowden said. “You guys are the firefighters.”

For roughly an hour, Snowden spoke about internet encryption (which he called “the Defense Against the Dark Arts of the digital world”) and the need for encryption technology to pass “the Glenn Greenwald test” – in other words, to be simple enough that a reasonably normal person can use it. He also gave a beginner’s tutorial on Tor, the anonymous web browser, and several other tools he recommended that SXSW attendees use in their everyday communication.

Snowden didn’t break any news at SXSW, or give many windows into his new life in Russia. But he did give a passionate (if predictable) defense of his disclosures, and a mini-sermon on the importance of reining in the national security state.

“If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will accept that as a green light to do the same,” he said.

Snowden presumably chose to talk at SXSW (rather than, say, a smaller conference of hardcore cryptographers) because this audience is tech-savvy enough to understand the basic issues at stake, but still representative of the digital masses. It’s an audience of people who are deeply enmeshed in the existing digital grid – people who have given Google and Facebook metric tons of their personal information, people who can’t live without their iPhones, and who, in some cases, are paid to monetize the data of others at their jobs.

“The irony that we’re using Google Hangouts to talk to Ed Snowden is not lost on me,” the moderator said.

Near the end of the session, one Q&A participant asked Snowden the question that had been on my mind: Can we, as a society, reap the benefits of “big data” without bearing the costs when it comes to surveillance? It’s a good question that cuts to the heart of the debate about Snowden’s revelations –the question of where the cost/benefit equation of mass surveillance comes out.

Snowden gave a long-winded answer about public debate and the need to approach big data carefully. But his audience was already streaming out of the room – off to check their Facebook feeds, send emails through Google’s servers on an unsecured Wi-Fi network, and otherwise ignore all that they’d heard.