In an extremely rare public talk (via the web, of course) Edward Snowden, the infamous NSA leaker and current fugitive from the United States, told a transfixed tech conference audience this week here at SXSW 2014 that the U.S. government’s surveillance of its citizens is a problem that needs to be “fixed.”
Speaking via teleconference, Snowden addressed thousands of audience members for the first time since fleeing the United States in June 2013. He fled with thousands of secret government documents stolen from the National Security Agency, where he was a contractor, in tow.
The documents in his possession show that the NSA has been conducting secret monitoring of phone and Internet behavior of Americans in the name of national security.
When asked if he had regrets about his decision to leave these documents, Snowden said that he had no regrets. “Would I do it again? Absolutely. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to,” he said.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. And I saw the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale,” he then added, which garnered a solid round of applause from the audience of approximately 3000 people in attendance at the Austin Convention Center.
Snowden then addressed the crowd directly. “South by Southwest and the tech community, the people in the room in Austin, they’re the folks who can fix this,” he said. “There’s a political response that needs to occur, but there’s also a tech response that needs to occur.”
Snowden’s image, which was projected onto video screens with the U.S. Constitution as a backdrop, repeatedly froze and was quite slow to stream.
The address was streamed through several routers for security reasons and delivered via Google Hangouts. It was hosted by two American Civil Liberties Union lawyers.
Another opinion that Snowden offered was that the Internet, and its users, needed to be more aware, and have better tools, to secure their private online information from the prying eyes of the NSA.
“This is something that people have to be able to interact with, and the way we interact with it now is not that good,” he said.
During his talk Snowden took questions from the ACLU’s Chris Sogohian as well as his lawyer, Ben Wizner. He also answered questions from the audience as well as from Twitter. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web 25 years ago this week, was fittingly the first person to ask a question and asked Snowden what he would change, if possible, about the United States’ surveillance system.
Snowden replied: “We need public oversight … some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us. We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we’re not informed, we can’t consent to these (government) policies.”
Snowden was also asked what he thought the difference was between government surveillance and spying by private Internet companies. He said he believed that government surveillance was more sinister because of the fact that “the government has the ability to deprive you of rights. They can jail you.”
Snowden was granted temporary asylum last year in Russia. He’s a former CIA employee and a contractor for the NSA who was forced to flee the country after leaking details of the spy program being used by the American government. He has said that, until the United States changes its protection laws for whistleblowers, he will not return to his home country. The U.S. Government is charging him with felony charges of espionage as well as theft of government property.
The audience reaction at SXSW 2014 to his comments was generally mixed.
“I think it was right on,” said Michael Chalcraft, a retired software entrepreneur from Seattle. “There’s always a balance between what the government should know about us and what we would expect to be private. If we’re not constantly protecting that privacy, then we give it up.”
The event was streamed live by the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit media organization.