While repeating his call for government reforms to rein in spy agencies, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden said in a rare public appearance Monday that Silicon Valley and the tech industry must also do more to resist Internet surveillance by expanding encryption and other safeguards for popular online services.
"They are setting fire to the future of the Internet," Snowden said of government spy agencies, while speaking from Russia on a video connection beamed to a mostly tech audience at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He added: "The people in this room right now -- you guys are the firefighters."
Encryption can be a powerful weapon against mass surveillance because it's extremely difficult to break, Snowden said. He argued that wider use of encryption would force spy agencies to focus on tapping the devices used by individuals whom authorities have reason to target, which he said would be both more effective and more consistent with the U.S. Constitution -- a copy of which was prominently displayed behind him as he spoke.
Snowden's appearance comes amid a fierce public debate over government spy programs and whether he was justified in exposing them. Concerns over Internet privacy and surveillance are a hot topic for Silicon Valley -- one that's on the agenda for several sessions at the festival, which is also known as SXSW and which draws thousands of techies and industry leaders each spring.
The former contract worker for the National Security Agency fled to Hong Kong and then Russia last year to avoid U.S. prosecution for revealing classified information about government programs. He was joined Monday by two American Civil Liberties Union activists who were on stage in Austin.
They were using the popular Google Hangouts video chat service, according to the ACLU's Ben Wizner, who serves as Snowden's legal counsel. Apologizing for "hiccups" in the video, Wizner joked that they had attempted to shield the transmission's source by bouncing it across proxy servers around the world.
Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other Internet companies have already urged Congress to reform government spy policies. They also have beefed up encryption measures in the wake of news reports, based on documents leaked by Snowden, that described government efforts to weaken security standards and tap overseas data transmissions between computer centers.
"His disclosures have improved Internet security," said ACLU technology expert Christopher Soghoian, although he acknowledged, "there are going to be people in this audience who think that what Ed did is wrong."
Both Snowden and Soghoian said tech companies can do more to protect consumers who don't have the tech savvy to use obscure software tools that encrypt or otherwise shield their data from prying eyes.
Snowden also called on Internet companies to consider how long they retain users' data, since extended stockpiling may create an attractive target for spy agencies.
But in response to an audience question, Snowden said that despite concerns about companies like Google and Facebook, which gather lots of information about their users, he doesn't consider them as threatening as government agencies that do the same.
"The government has the ability to deprive you of your rights. They can literally kill you. They can jail you," Snowden said. "Companies can surveil you to sell you products, they can sell your information to other companies," he added, but consumers can sue for privacy violations or simply not use a company's services.
Snowden's revelations have drawn criticism from officials who say they jeopardized national security. U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., an Army veteran, urged festival organizers to cancel the talk because it would encourage "the very lawlessness he exhibited."
But the SXSW audience applauded Snowden several times, including when Wizner read an email from Tim Berners-Lee, a respected computer scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee wrote that Snowden's leaks were "profoundly in the public interest."
Leading Internet companies declined to comment on Snowden's remarks, but one industry group stressed the need for government action to restore trust in the Internet.
"The only way to achieve meaningful surveillance reform, and preserve the openness of the Internet and the innovation economy that it drives, is to change the policies that authorize the bulk collection of individuals' communications and add transparency to the oversight process," said Christian Dawson of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, who's on a conference panel set to address the topic Tuesday.
Snowden said he wanted to speak at SXSW because "the people in the audience right now, they're the folks who can really fix things."
Referring to proposed legal reforms, he said: "There's a policy response that needs to occur. But there's also a technical response that needs to occur. And it's the makers, it's the thinkers and the development community that can craft solutions to make sure we're safe."