The National Security Agency and other government agencies that are using mass surveillance techniques on Internet users are "setting fire to the future of the Internet," said NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden March 10 during a discussion Webcast from the South by South West (SXSW) conference.
The former NSA contractor spoke at length about his actions and what should be done to improve security. Snowden has been on the run from the long arm of the U.S. government since he first leaked information about the agency in June 2013.
Snowden has been hiding out at an undisclosed location in Russia since then. To keep his location secret for the SXSW interview, Snowden tunneled his Internet connection through no less then seven proxies.
During the hourlong discussion, Snowden referred to mass surveillance techniques as unlawful and suggested that more targeted methods of surveillance can be lawful without the need for bulk Internet data collection. Snowden explained that end-to-end encryption makes mass surveillance difficult at the network level.
"By doing end-to-end encryption, you force global passive adversaries to go after the end points and the individual computers," Snowden said. "The result of that is a more constitutional and carefully overseen intelligence-gathering model."
Snowden wants privacy and encryption tools to become more usable for everyday users to improve the privacy of the Internet as a whole. He also believes bulk data collection hasn't been beneficial in mitigating any specific threats to U.S. national security. "We have actually had tremendous intelligence failures because we are monitoring the Internet," Snowden said. "We're monitoring everyone's communications instead of just suspects' communications."
In Snowden's view, the lack of focus has caused the United States to miss intelligence leads that it should not have missed. One of those leads that Snowden says the United States should have had was related to the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
During the SXSW discussion, a statement and a question sent in by World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee was read. Berners-Lee thanked Snowden, noting that Snowden's actions actually were "profoundly in the public interest." That statement elicited applause from the SXSW audience.
Berners-Lee's question for Snowden was about how to build an accountability system for government surveillance agencies. Snowden responded that there already is an oversight model for U.S. intelligence agencies.
"The problem is when the overseers aren't interested in oversight and Senate and House Intelligence committees are cheerleading for the NSA instead of holding them to account," Snowden said.
In Snowden's view, the answer to fixing the oversight issue is better accountability, and there needs to be trusted public figures and civil rights advocates that protect the interests of citizens and watch over Congress. "If we're not informed, how can we consent to these policies," Snowden said.
Going a step further, Snowden said that it's important to hold the U.S. government accountable for its surveillance activities because of what it means for other global governments. If the NSA is able to continue its activities without oversight and restraint, the United States is effectively giving the global community the green light to do the same, he said.
Snowden also emphasized that the information he took from the U.S. government is safe from other nation-states because encryption works. "The U.S government has assembled a massive investigation team into me personally, and they still have no idea what documents were provided to journalists because encryption works," Snowden said.
Neither the Russian nor Chinese governments has possession of any of Snowden's information, he said.
During the discussion, Snowden also revealed his motivation for taking information from the NSA and leaking it to the public. "What I wanted to do is inform the public so they could make a decision and provide their consent about what we should be doing," Snowden said.
The result of Snowden's disclosures is that the Internet will be more secure and there is better civic interaction about what the government is doing, he said. "Would I do it again? The answer is, absolutely yes," Snowden said. "Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to know."
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.