NSA leaker Edward Snowden speaks at SXSW conference

Edward Snowden spoke during a simulcast conversation at the SXSW Interactive Festival on Monday, March 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas.
Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP
Edward Snowden spoke during a simulcast conversation at the SXSW Interactive Festival on Monday, March 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas — Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents that revealed a vast network of surveillance by US government agencies, wants the technology industry to become serious about protecting the privacy of its customers.

Snowden, speaking Monday at the South by Southwest festival via videoconference, said the early technology adopters and entrepreneurs who travel to Austin every year for the event are “the folks who can fix this and enforce our rights.”

On stage while Snowden spoke were Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and Snowden’s legal adviser. All three men said that they wanted to raise a call to arms to developers and activists to build better tools to protect the privacy of technology users.


Snowden said that even the companies whose business models rely on collecting data about their users “can still do this in a responsible way.”

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“It’s not that you shouldn’t collect the data,” he said. “But you should only collect the data and hold it as long as necessary.”

Snowden appeared to have no regrets about exposing the US government’s surveillance methods.

‘‘I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale,’’ he told the audience.

Hundreds of people sat quietly as Snowden spoke. Snowden, who faces criminal charges of espionage and fled the United States last summer, spoke from Russia, where he is living.


Ultimately, the tech industry can help fix the problem, Soghoian said.

“Most regular people are not going to download some obscure security app,” he said. “They’re going to use the tools they already have,” which include Google, Facebook and Skype.

The technology community should pressure those companies to introduce security measures that are stronger and easier to use, Soghoian said.

“We need services to include security by default,” he added.

Privacy and surveillance were major themes of the technology portion of the SXSW conference. During the weekend, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, also gave a talk via videoconference.


In a discussion Friday, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, talked about the idea of data permanence — that what is done online never goes away — as the hallmark of the digital era. There is no erase button, he said, and we all need to think critically about the footprint we are creating for ourselves.

He also floated the notion that online privacy itself may soon become a luxury item that people will pay for. Schmidt described “ecosystems developing around the idea of data permanence,” such as “parents taking out insurance policies around their kids’ acting stupidly about what they say and do online.”

Conference attendees cheered as Snowden spoke, but the event drew some criticism. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote a letter to SXSW organizers calling for them to cancel the event.

In their description of the event, SXSW organizers said “SXSW agrees that a healthy debate with regards to the limits of surveillance is vital to the future of the online ecosystem.”

Materials from the Associated Press were used in this report.