Today saw Edward Snowden’s first broadcast interview into the USA since arriving in Russia on temporary asylum. It was a massive coup for SXSW, and it did not disappoint, with four of the largest ballrooms here full to the brim (one live and three spillover rooms streamed onto big screens)

The panel was hosted by two representatives of the ACLU (American Civil Liberty Union), Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian, who did a tremendous job driving the discussion whilst the virtual Snowden, introduced to huge applause as the biggest whistleblower in history, took a “special comments” role. Snowden discussed his belief that suspicion-less surveillance not only fails to make us safe, it actually makes us less safe. By squandering precious, limited resources on “collecting it all,” we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators that are running down real leads.

When referencing possible solutions to halting mass surveillance, Soghoian quoted part of Snowden’s testimony to the European parliament.”The good news is that there are solutions. The weakness of mass surveillance is that it can very easily be made much more expensive through changes in technical standard.”

He went onto to say that encryption makes bulk surveillance too expensive. The goal isn’t to stop the government from going after legitimate targets. The goal is to make it so that they can’t spy on innocent people. If we start using encrypted services, it becomes too expensive to spy on everyone, and they’ll have to go after the people who really matter.

Ben Wizner then discussed the role of the digital platforms as part of this (e.g.. Google, yahoo etc) emphasising “So many of the services we’re relying on are not secure by default. We need to make them secure out of the box. That means that developers are going to have to think about security early on in the development process.”

Snowden then moved on to explain his choice of the SXSW and the development community to speak out for the first time like this, describing it “as a “call to arms” for technologists to create user-friendly, secure tool adding that the various security tools already embed in the major platforms need to be turned on by default.”

The panel then went to twitter for questions with the first coming from Tim Berners Lee, The inventor of the world wide web, who asked “how we can make oversight more accountable”

Snowden explained that there needs to be another side to the argument and that a good start was to ensure trusted representation for the defence in the secret closed courts that were currently making those surveillance decisions. When asked about whether he was satisfied with the global response to his actions…. he responded that he was comfortable with the level of debate that had been created ….”what I wanted to do was inform the public so they could make a decision about what we should do”

Overall a fascinating discussion, that was managed seamlessly by the ASLU representatives on stage, and served to reinforce our earlier position that personal privacy is going to be something consumers (and by default, marketers) are going to care much more about.


See more of The Royals’ coverage at SXSW Live and Fresh, a collaboration with B&T.

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