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From leaker to speaker

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 7:10pm
MIT Technology Review

If Edward Snowden hadn’t fled to Russia to seek political asylum, he’d probably be incommunicado on a U.S. naval brig somewhere. Instead, he’s giving motivational speeches to huge crowds of developers.

Today, Snowden appeared via video-conference to give a keynote at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin. Snowden, appearing larger than life in front of a backdrop of the U.S. constitution, led off with this sound bite:

They are setting fire to the future of the internet.  And the people in the room now, you guys are the firefighters.

Starting last summer, Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, leaked a trove of secret documents that revealed widespread surveillance by the spy agency. The leaks have global political implications and President Obama has vowed to reform spying practices.

But at SXSW, the message was more about companies, which prior to the disclosures – and even now – haven’t necessarily paid much attention to security, according to Christopher Soghoian, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union who shared the stage with Snowden. According to Soghoian, commercial software isn’t as secure as it should be, and for many companies “security is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all. That is what has enabled global surveillance by the US and other countries.”

The crowd at SXSW was immensely sympathetic to Snowden, who was referred to as “Ed” by moderators and was cheered several times. He’s not just a civil rights whistleblower, anymore. He’s a motivational speaker. As Snowden told the crowd:

There is a policy response that needs to occur. But there is also a technical response. And it’s the makers, the thinkers, it’s the development community, that can really craft the solution, that have to do it.

Not everyone is happy with Snowden’s stardom. Prior to the conference, U.S. congressman Mike Pompeo, also a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to organizers, calling Snowden a “traitor” and wondering why the one-time “systems administrator” was being touted as an expert on privacy and surveillance.

“Mr. Snowden cares more about personal fame than personal privacy,” Pompeo wrote.

Snowden doesn’t give that impression. He is a clear, thoughtful speaker, and, in many ways, restrained in his remarks. He keeps making the same few points. Officials lied to Congress about NSA surveillance, prompting him to leak the documents. Also, he says, encryption technology is the best way to foil large-scale eavesdropping.

Indeed, in the 8 months since Snowden’s revelations began, many large companies have expanded their use of encryption, including Yahoo, which previously had left users email vulnerable to government snoops who ended up colleting messages and webcam images with ease.

According to Soghoian, this change in corporate behavior is one of the biggest effects Snowden has had in coming forward: 

There are people [who] think Ed is wrong. But let me be clear about one thing. Ed’s disclosure has improved internet security, and not only from bulk government surveillance, but also from common identity thieves and stalkers. It took the largest and most profound whistleblower in history to get these companies to finally prioritize security.

That’s not to say the security problem is solved. The business model of large companies is to collect consumer information and repackage or resell it for advertising. That means they aren’t too interested in the very toughest forms of security and encryption, which aren’t user friendly, and could complicate their business models.

But Soghoian said that people in industry, especially  cryptography experts at large companies who implement security schemes, are very angry about government snooping and have become “radicalized” by the NSA revelations.

The tools that come out in the next years will be much more secure and that is because the people in that part of the tech community feel like they were lied to.

We have Ed Snowden to thank for that. You can find a video of his SXSW comments here.

 

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