In his first live video appearance, Edward Snowden has just participated in a panel at SXSW alongside the ACLU’s Ben Wizner – one of his legal advisors – and Chris Soghoian.
In interviews before the event, both Ben Wizner and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman explained Snowden’s motivation for speaking at the SXSW Interactive Festival, with Gellman pointing out that “The tech community has been pretty disturbed” by Snowden’s revelations and “This is a group he wants to influence.”
One of the main subjects of the discussion was the effectiveness of encryption and its accessibility to non-specialists. Snowden outlined the importance of end-to-end encryption in “making mass surveillance impossible at the network level” and said that the main challenge facing technologists was to work out “how can we enforce these protections in a simple, cheap and effective way that is invisible to users.”
Chris Soghoian pointed out that there would be additional challenges in enforcing end to end encryption, not least that it might not be compatible with the business models of some of the major tech companies. Indeed, it had taken the unavoidable fact of Snowden’s revelations – particularly GCHQ’s infiltration of tech companies’ data centres – to force industry leaders to improve their practices. “Let me be clear about one thing,” said Soghoian, “Ed Snowden’s disclosures have improved internet security.”
Discussion turned to recent statements made by outgoing NSA head General Keith Alexander that Snowden had caused “grave damage” to national security. Snowden took issue with this on two counts, explaining that the NSA’s weakening of cryptographic standards was likely to have a disproportionate impact on the security of the United States and that national security might be better served by taking a defensive posture against cyberattack:
“America has more to lose than anyone else when every attack succeeds…. When you have a vault that is full, it makes no sense to be on the offensive all the time.”
As he has done previously, Snowden also questioned the effectiveness of mass surveillance – “The reality is that when they did it, it didn’t work… but noone wanted to say so… We’ve had tremendous security failings because instead of monitoring suspects’ communications, we’re monitoring everyone’s communications” – and suggested that the contractors and private companies the NSA often tasks with the implementation have a disproportionate impact on policy.
Prompted by a question from Tim Berners-Lee, Snowden also spoke about how oversight mechanisms could be made more effective, arguing that “we had an oversight model that could work, the problem is when overseers aren’t interested in oversight.” Alongside regulatory capture, Snowden singled out the accountability of officials like James Clapper and the FISA Court’s formulation of secret interpretations of the US constitution for particular criticism.
Finally, Snowden was asked whether he was satisfied with the outcome of his actions and whether, given the chance, he would do the same again:
“Would I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes. I took an oath to defend the Constitution and I saw it was being violated on a massive scale.”