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Whistleblower Edward Snowden beamed in from Russia to speak with attendees at the South by Southwest festival in Austin on Monday. It was his first live conversation since he disclosed thousands of classified documents to media outlets in June 2013.
Snowden, who is living in political asylum at an undisclosed location in Russia, spoke with Ben Weisner and Christopher Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union. Weisner, the ACLU’s director of Speech, Privacy and Technology Program, and Soghoian, ACLU’s principal technologist, spoke to a packed auditorium. The audience was so large that it spilled over into additional rooms in the Austin Convention Center.
When asked why he chose to speak to a technology audience rather than a policy audience, Snowden replied, “I would say SXSW and the technology community and people who are in the room in Austin right now, they’re the folks who can really fix things and can enforce our rights through technical standards.”
He went on to describe that the National Security Administration’s surveillance has created an adversarial Internet. “It’s not what we asked for. It’s not what we want,” he added. “There’s a policy response that needs to occur. There’s also a technical response that needs to occur.”
Snowden spent most of the hour-long conversation discussiong how technology companies can improve security for their users by improving their encryption technologies. Ironically, the conversation was hosted through Google’s conference calling software Hangouts.
“The irony that we’re using Google Hangouts to talk to Ed Snowden has not been lost on me or our team here,” said Soghoian. “The fact is that the tools that exist to enable secure end-to-end, encrypted video conferencing are not very polished, particularly when you’re having a conversation with someone who’s in Russia and is bouncing his connection through several proxies, the secure communications tools tend to break.”
Not everyone wanted to see Snowden speak in Austin. Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote an open letter to SXSW organizers asking them to cut the conversation from its schedule.
“Mr. Snowden’s appearance would stamp the imprimatur of your fine organization on a man who ill deserves such accolades,” he wrote. “Rewarding Mr. Snowden’s behavior in this way encourages the very lawlessness he exhibited.”
The conversation with Snowden, which was occasionally buggy because of his efforts to secure the conversation, was live streamed through the Texas Tribune. The full interview will be available to watch on the ACLU website.
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