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Edward Snowden appears at SXSW, calls on U.S. technology companies to protect privacy

Edward Snowden SXSW Interactive 2014
Edward Snowden appeared at SXSW via an encrypted feed. Photo by Katie Friel
Edward Snowden SXSW Interactive 2014 audience
A packed audience for Edward Snowden. Photo by Katie Friel

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who ignited a global discussion on privacy and security last summer, spoke publicly for the first time since The Washington Post published his leaked documents in June 2013. Presumed to be hiding in Russia, Snowden joined a packed audience (via seven encrypted proxies, naturally) at SXSW Interactive on Monday for "A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden."

Appearing in front of a green screen with an image of the U.S. Constitution — the iconic "We the people" appearing directly behind his head — Snowden fielded questions from moderator Bill Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy & Technology Project and was joined on stage by Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst, also with the ACLU. During his introduction, Wizner applauded the former contractor for the "historic debate that he helped launch," thus setting up what would be a very friendly affair for Snowden in front of a very receptive audience. 

 "The people who are in the room in Austin right now, they are the folks who can really fix things," Snowden said via a weak Google Plus connection, an irony not lost on the panel or the audience. 

And it was an audience Snowden said he was eager to speak with. "The people who are in the room in Austin right now, they are the folks who can really fix things," Snowden said via a weak Google Plus connection, an irony not lost on the panel or the audience. "They can enforce our rights through technical standards, even if Congress hasn't yet gotten to the point of creating legislation to protect our rights."

Becoming the beacons of privacy was the rallying cry with which Snowden — with the help of Wizner and Soghoian — implored the international technology community throughout the hour-long conversation. "The whole world sends their data to the United States. This means the the U.S. — because of Silicon Valley, because of the density of tech companies in this country — enjoys an unparalleled intelligence advantage that every other government just doesn't have," explained Soghoian. 

In order to maintain our status as the worldwide technology leader, Soghoian said American tech companies must respect the privacy of all global citizens. "The revelations of the past eight months have given many people in other countries a very reasonable [doubt] whether they should be trusting their data to United States companies," said Soghoian. "I think tech companies can do a lot to get that trust back by employing encryption and other privacy protection technologies."

Though difficult to hear, and at times dense in his explanation of data and encryption, this was a sentiment echoed by Snowden, who added that technology companies must make privacy issues a viable business model — and U.S. citizens must be willing to pay for the privilege of privacy. 

After taking a few curated softball questions via the Twitter hashtag #asksnowden, the NSA whistleblower ended his first public remarks with a decidedly "no regrets" attitude. "Whatever happens to me, this is something we have a right to know. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution ... The interpretation of the Constitution had been changed in secret from 'no unreasonable search and seizure' to 'hey, any seizure is fine, just don't search it,'" said Snowden. 

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You can watch the entire conversation with Edward Snowden via the ACLU's YouTube channel

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