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The 2014 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference in Austin, TX, brought the top tech, entrepreneurs and industry experts in the world of web together. And who were they all there to see? Not Matt Cutts or Michael Dell, nor so many other hundreds of panelists who are veterans, leaders or up and coming in their craft. The talk of the town and all eyes were on Edward Snowden. And he was there to talk to them too. An entire exhibition hall was full and two overspill rooms were filled to the brim as well. Not to mention the tens of thousands of people watching and listening to the Google Hangout Livestream from outside the Austin Convention Center courtesy of the Texas Tribune.
“Please bear with us today the technology may have some kinks, the video may appear a bit choppy” the panel moderator, Ben Wizner apologized before starting the session. “Our friend here today is appearing through seven proxies.” The crowd chuckled. Because when you are using Google Hangout to speak to an estranged ex-CIA contractor turned privacy whistleblower currently in asylum in Russia, one should have their security bases covered.
Snowden Encourages Better Privacy And Security Solutions
A flood of iPhones popped out and camera shutters clicked away as Ed Snowden’s face appeared on the big screen for the first time after days of anticipation. When asked right off the bat why he chose SXSW as the place and venue to speak? He simply replied, “The people in this room are all the firefighters. We need you to help us fix this.” And by firefighters he alluded to the fact that these were not policymakers or pencil pushers but, instead, are innovators and creators. Chief Technology Officers, programmers, developers and other techies who embrace change and hopefully will embrace Snowden’s aspirations to create better privacy and security solutions. “This country is on the defense not the offense” when it comes to security as panelist Christopher Soghoian, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) so eloquently put it.
End To End Data Encryption Is Key
And that reactive behavior is exactly what happened as a result of Snowden’s June 2013 NSA and Prism leaks. Soghoian praised Snowden on multiple occasions for being the impetus that spurred many companies both big and small, including Yahoo and Apple, to implement better security practices. He noted that businesses should have been encrypting their users’ data but weren’t…thanks to Snowden, they are now – to a point. Many companies are more secure and we all have “Ed” to thank for this. It was almost as if he was thanking a friend for doing a favor – for him and for the general public. Drawing attention to that favor is what drew an applause from conference goers, but that didn’t stop Soghoian from angrily admitting that it should have already happened and there is still plenty of work to do. But he acknowledged that it took Snowden’s action to leverage us to a more secure place. And Snowden reminded us that the end to end encryption (data that is encrypted by the sender and decrypted by the receiver) is not in place yet for most mainstream technologies but is critical for achieving true privacy and security for our personal data.
We The People Have A Right To Freedom
With his “very clever green screen” backdrop of “We the People” from the U.S. Constitution behind Snowden, it was clear he (or whomever chose it) was sending a message to the people who freedom is not only a right, it’s a privilege. We the people should not abuse or take for granted this power and it is the responsibility of government, tech companies and data storage companies to protect this privacy now and in the future. “The US Constitution had been violated and the public deserves to know about it,” stated Edward Snowden.
As much as has already been done, there is still much more work to be accomplished. Author/Journalist Barton Gellman said it best of Snowden when he remarked: “Forget whistleblower – it should be lantern holder” meaning that he shined a light on what is a small piece of a bigger puzzle. As the lecture ends, SXSW comes to a close and we pack up our laptops, put away our iPhones and return back to our normal routines, I am cautiously optimistic that this new-found perspective on how data and information is stored, how our privacy and independence have been put at risk, is enough to prompt change. Thanks to Snowden for being brave enough to spur the action and controversy. Now, the real work is in our hands.