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SXSW 2014: Snowden Speaks, Criticizing NSA Directors For Weakening US Cybersecurity

First Posted: Mar 11, 2014 04:25 PM EDT
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On Monday, the ex-National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of more than a million top-secret documents to the press in 2013 -- leading to an avalanche of revelations about the U.S. cyberspy agency's activities -- took the (virtual) stage at South by Southwest.

Snowden, who spoke via a video feed from Moscow, Russia, where he is staying on a temporary asylum grant after fleeing from the U.S. Government, unsurprisingly criticized the U.S. Government's secret activities and spoke about the NSA. He also called out U.S. courts, NSA Director Keith Alexander and former Director Michael Hayden, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, and Congress through his digital soapbox (with a bad connection, distorting the audio in the video below).
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Speaking with an image of the U.S. Constitution backdropped behind him, Snowden talked about how he had taken an oath to protect that document but saw it "violated on a massive scale" while working for the government. After his NSA leaks hit the press, resulting in calls for, and promises of, reform for the agency, Snowden described the current situation as he saw it. "We have a good starting point," said Snowden according to Politico. "We have an oversight model that could work. The problem is when you have overseers that aren't interested in oversight."

That's when Snowden began calling out various members of the government for letting the agency go too far. "The key factor is accountability. We can't have officials like James Clapper who can lie to everyone in the country, who can lie to Congress, and face no criticism," said Snowden to SXSW attendees. "We also have the FISA Court, which is a secret rubber-stamp court, but they're only supposed to approve warrant applications," he said. "At the same time, a secret court shouldn't be interpreting the constitution when only NSA's lawyers are making the case." Snowden pointed out these two elements as "the two primary factors that I believe need to change."

Snowden, who has been described as a traitor, a narcissist, or "totally batsh*t" by people on both sides of the political spectrum, spoke earnestly and competently about how to fix the government surveillance situation from a technical and legal perspective, defending his leaking without a hint of hysteria:

"It's very interesting to see officials like [NSA Director] Keith Alexander talking about damage that's been done to, sort of, the defense of our communications, because more than anything, there have been two officials in America who have harmed our internet security and actually our national security ... Those two officials are [former NSA Director] Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander, two directors of the National Security Agency in the post-9/11 era."

Snowden talked about the NSA "eroding the protections of our communications," a reference to alleged secret actions by the government to purposefully weaken commercial encryption standards, and how that could backfire on the government and the public, because "America has more to lose than everyone else whenever [a hypothetical cyber-] attack succeeds," against government systems -- the same systems that Snowden now famously was able to collect over a million documents to leak. Snowden said that when the government's trove of information "is more full than anyone else's, it doesn't make sense to be attacking all day and never defending your vault, and it makes even less sense when you set the standards for vaults worldwide and leave a wide backdoor that anyone can walk into."

Snowden makes a good point about the NSA's weakening of digital security, though the only one that would know about the "back door" would be the NSA if Snowden hadn't leaked it, but the point is probably that eventually it would have been discovered anyway.

Later after his speech, Snowden answered questions from the ACLU's Ben Wizner, the last of which was whether Snowden had felt his actions were right and whether he would leak the NSA documents again, given another chance. His answer, interrupted by applause, was "absolutely yes."

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