AUSTIN -- National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden spoke at this year's South By Southwest Interactive Festival via live video from Moscow. The former NSA contractor is living there in temporary asylum.
Snowden faces felony charges in the U.S. after revealing the agency's mass surveillance program by leaking thousands of classified documents to media outlets.
Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke with Snowden along with Snowden's legal adviser, the ACLU's Ben Wizner. Wizner facilitated the conversation.
The crowd applauded Monday morning as Snowden's face appeared on giant screens in three Austin Convention Center ballrooms. Snowden joined the SXSW session via a Google+ Hangout and a connection traveling through seven proxy servers. He sat in front of a digital "green screen" type background displaying the United States Constitution, a document mentioned several times throughout the SXSW session and the key reason Snowden said he chose to leak what he did.
The conversation began by discussing the technicalities and pitfalls of data encryption.
Soghoian said people basically have two choices -- a secure encryption service that is so complex the common man doesn't know how to use it, or encryption that's more user-friendly but not secure.
Snowden hopes for a day where encryption is accessible for everyone and easy to use. We're not there yet, he said, but he does think progress is being made in that area. He said encryption does work, we just need to be actively improving it.
Soghoian said most people won’t download obscure encryption apps. They’ll use the tools they already have like Facebook and Google, whose encryptions aren't strong enough. He stressed the need for pressure to be put on big companies like that to offer better security for their users.
"We've been left to protect ourselves," Soghoian added.
Snowden recommended three ways the average person could increase their digital security: full disc encryption, network encryption and Tor -- a mix-routing network. Snowden noted that if the government still wants to "get you" online via targeted surveillance, they could, but doing the above will increase one's security from mass surveillance.
Soghoian urged consumers to re-think their relationships with many of the companies who have their data. If you're getting the service for free, that company will probably not have your privacy's best interest in mind, he said. So in this case the age-old saying could be true, "You get what you pay for."
Soghoian continued the critique on America's current surveillance climate stating that regardless of one's politics, people probably don't want the government knowing if they've called an abortion clinic, gun store or church.
So how do we make sure that doesn't happen? Snowden says the answer is more accountability. He'd like trusted public figures to serve as government watchdogs for the American people, keeping the government accountable.
"If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will consider that a green light to do the same," Snowden said.
If the public isn't "in the know" and are being lied to, Snowden asked, "How can we vote? If Americans are not accurately informed, Snowden questioned how people could then consent to the country's policies.
The last half of the session was perhaps the most powerful.
Soghoian passionately told the audience that regardless of one's opinion of Snowden, there's no question that because of him, many companies have bettered their security, or at least improved it at a faster rate that they might have without Snowden. Yahoo, Google, Apple and Facebook were a few of the companies Soghoian mentioned whose users have benefited from Snowden sparking a worldwide data security and privacy conversation.
Wizner wound down the hour-long chat asking Snowden if all he's been through and sacrificed was worth it.
"Absolutely, yes," Snowden answered after explaining in greater detail his reasons for his leak.
"It wasn't so I could change the government or tell them what to do. I wanted to inform the public so they could make a decision on what we should do," Snowden said.
Snowden explained further saying that he took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and he saw that it had been violated on a massive scale, so he took action.
Snowden's SXSW conversation ended to enthusiastic applause, but in reality, his conversation is only just beginning.
KVUE will have more on Snowden's appearance at SXSW at 5 p.m.