Government surveillance programs are “setting fire to the future of the Internet,” former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden said Monday in a rare video interview.
Appearing via satellite at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music and technology festival in Austin, Texas, the NSA leaker called on tech developers around the world to protect people's rights.
“They’re setting fire to the future of the Internet and the people who are in this room now, you guys are all the firefighters and we need you to help us fix this,” he told the audience.
Wearing his familiar wire-frame glasses, Snowden spoke with a measured defiance, though the livestream occasionally stuttered and garbled his words.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and I saw that the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale,” he said to applause in the supportive audience.
“When it comes to would I do this again, the answer is absolutely yes. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we have a right to know.”
Snowden said that attendees at the annual festival, not lawmakers in Congress, were ”the folks who can really fix things, who can enforce our rights through technical standards even when Congress hasn’t yet gotten to the point of creating legislation for techno-rights."
“When we think about what’s happened ... the result has been an adversarial Internet, a sort of global free-fire zone for Internet,” he said.
“It’s something we need to protect against.”
The conversation was moderated by two officials from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who praised the former contractor for inspiring an “extraordinary global debate” that has caused Web companies to beef up protections for their users.
Christopher Soghoian, the organization’s principal technologist, said that much of the ACLU’s work has been to urge major tech companies like Skype and Google to increase the safeguards against government intrusion.
“We need services to be building security in by default and enabled without any advanced configuration,” he said.
“It’s not that you can’t collect any data,” Snowden added. “It’s that you should only collect the data and hold it for as long as necessary for the operation of the business.”
The tech companies need to step up, Snowden said, because Congress hasn’t.
Dozens of lawmakers in both chambers have signed on to NSA reform bills such as the USA Freedom Act from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). That bill, however, has languished in committee and has yet to receive a vote.
“The problem is when the overseers aren’t interested in oversight, when you’ve got Senate intelligence committees, House intelligence committees that are cheerleading the NSA instead of holding them to account ... that’s an incredibly dangerous thing,” Snowden said.
Snowden’s disclosures last year spurred outrage around the world and created a foreign relations crisis for President Obama as allies raised concerns about the NSA’s activities.
Last week, Snowden sent testimony to the European Parliament, which is considering two measures that would formally condemn the NSA’s spying while restricting American companies from processing Europeans’ data.
Defenders of the NSA blasted Snowden’s appearance.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, last week urged SXSW to withdraw the invitation, warning that they would be providing “a venue to an at-large criminal.”
In a letter to organizers of the festival, Pompeo said that Snowden’s appearance “undermines the very fairness and freedom that SXSW and the ACLU purport to foster.”
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and other supporters of the agency’s practices have said that Snowden’s releases have hurt national security by helping terrorists figure out ways to avoid detection.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence panel, have suggested that Snowden may have been working in collaboration with governments in Russia or China.
Snowden has repeatedly denied the accusation. He said on Monday that if he had given documents to foreign leaders, American spies would be able to tell.
“That would be easy for them to find out,” he said, noting the wide range of surveillance programs that the U.S. has targeted on China, Russia and other foreign countries.
“If suddenly the Chinese government knew everything the NSA was doing, we would notice the changes,” he said. “That’s never happened and it’s never going to happen.”
The European Parliament is considering two measures to restrict American companies from processing Europeans’ data and formally condemn the NSA’s spying.
Snowden has sought asylum in Russia since disclosing detailed information about the breadth of the surveillance at the NSA and elsewhere.
— This story was updated at 1:33 p.m.