Snowden at SXSW: Encryption is ‘defense against the dark arts in the digital realm’

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden spoke at the 2014 South by Southwest Interactive Festival Monday about what the tech community can do to address digital privacy and security concerns. Snowden addressed festival attendees via videoconference from Russia, where he is currently living under temporary asylum.

“I would say, South by Southwest and the tech community, the people who are in the room right now, they are the folks who can fix things, enforce our rights before … Congress can,” Snowden said, a green screen image of the U.S. Constitution behind the NSA whistleblower.

“They are setting fire to the future of the Internet. You guys that are in the room are the firefighters.”

Christopher Soghoian — the principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union — also joined the conversation, which was hosted by Snowden’s lawyer and ACLU director Ben Wizner. Their conversation focused on non-policy solutions. Throughout the hour-long forum, Snowden and Soghoian said repeatedly that the best way for Internet users to protect their data, is through encryption.

“We need to think about encryption not as black magic but as something that works,” Snowden said. “It’s the defense against the dark arts in the digital realm.”

Encryption takes information stored on a device or data that users want to share over networks and transforms it into a cypher or a code, which prevents unauthorized access to that data. Only the holder of the key, can view and understand that data.

While there are tools available to Internet users that can help to make their data even more secure, Soghoian said most of them have been made “by geeks for geeks” and won’t be used by the average user. The average American is more likely to choose the insecure tools that come with the devices that they buy than a tool that they do not know how to use, Soghoian said.

That’s why Soghoian and Snowden believe that developers and the larger tech companies must make encryption a priority as they create new digital tools for Internet users. As of present, “security is an after thought, if it is a thought at all,” Soghoian said.

Ultimately, encryption is a tool that could make the NSA’s mass surveillance and collection of Americans’ data too expensive.

“The goal isn’t to blind the NSA,” Soghoian said. “The goal is to make sure they cannot spy on innocent people because they can … If we start using encrypted services, suddenly it becomes too expensive for the NSA to spy on everyone.”

Snowden said the U.S. government’s strategy towards cybersecurity has been lopsided in the wrong direction, focusing on an offensive rather than defensive stance.

“When you have a vault that’s more full than anyone else’s, it doesn’t make sense to attack. When you set the standards for vaults worldwide, it makes no sense to have a big backdoor,” he said.

Since the U.S. has more information stored online than any other country, they have more to lose if an attack succeeds.

Tech companies in the U.S. also have economic reasons to continue improving users’ security. Otherwise, they could find international consumers switching to non-American digital tools and services.

“Regardless of what happens to me,” Snowden said, “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. And I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale.”

Read a full transcript of the SXSW discussion.

Support PBS NewsHour: