Today during an hour long discussion hosted by the ACLU and the Texas Tribune at SXSW, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden spoke via web broadcast about the need for better security to be implemented by the services utilized by users around the world. Snowden, of course, became famous when last summer he leaked a massive amount of classified documents regarding the NSA’s surveillance of people’s Internet data in and out of the United States, raising questions about general Internet security and whether or not companies compelled to deliver that data (with or without their knowledge) were complicit in those breaches of privacy.
Though Snowden was broadcast on-screen, he was joined on-stage by the ACLU’s Principal Technologist Chris Soghoian and the talk was moderated by Ben Wizner, the ACLU’s director of its Speech, Privacy, and Technology Program.
The main takeaway from the talk was that there needs to be more action on the part of service providers—companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook—to provide more encryption of user data so as to thwart the efforts of those who wish to access that data without users’ permission. In short, encryption will make the effort of bulk surveillance just difficult enough to dissuade entities like the NSA from its bulk surveillance efforts. Referencing Harry Potter, Snowden called encryption “defense of the dark arts for the digital world.”
“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.”
When asked what the average Internet user can do to protect their online data, Snowden mentioned Tor, a mixed routing network that makes it more difficult for users’ data to be tracked. Interestingly, from the stage Wizner and Soghoian lamented the fact that Tor was being touted as a solution for an average Internet user, since it’s not necessarily a particularly user-friendly option.
Snowden also took the occasion to call on those in attendance at the talk to petition for stronger security measures as a matter of course, saying that organizations like the NSA were “setting fire to the future of the internet.”
“And the people in this room now: you guys are all the firefighters,” he added. “We need you to fix this.”