Calling internet-based spying “the dark arts,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said the practice of mass electronic surveillance is ineffective and resources would be better spent on targeted surveillance.  The NSA failed to identify the Boston Marathon bomber plot as well as apparently failing to detect Russia’s Ukrainian invasion and has yet to produce any information in the Malaysian airliner disappearance, based on reports.

Edward Snowden

“They’re setting fire to the global Internet, and you guys in the room (the tech savvy) are the global firefighters”

Against a backdrop of the US Constitution, Snowden spoke via video to a tech-savvy audience in Austin, TX attending the South by Southwest festival and warned government mass surveillance has created an adversarial climate on the internet.  “They’re setting fire to the global Internet, and you guys in the room (the tech savvy) are the global firefighters,” Snowden said.

Snowden spoke via a video broadcast from Russia, where he was given asylum.  In the US he faces felony charges of espionage and theft of government property for leaking reams of documents to journalists that exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance programs.  U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder takes a strong stance against granting amnesty to Snowden, claiming he caused harm to national security and should be held accountable for his actions. Holder has described him as a defendant, a lawbreaker, not a whistle-blower.

“I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale”

His life turned upside down, Snowden says he won’t return until the United States changes its whistle-blower-protection laws while he remains defiant, saying he would do it again.  “I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale,” Snowden said. “We’re going to have a better civic interaction as a result of understanding what’s being done in our name. If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will accept that as a green light to do the same.”

Snowden: “Key factor is accountability”

Snowden’s first question came from Timothy John Berners-Lee, a British scientist credited as an inventor of the World Wide Web, who asked Snowden about accountability for oversight.  “We have an oversight model that could work. The problem is when the overseers are not interested in oversight,” Snowden said, noting that a lack of accountability will have international consequences. “The key factor is accountability. We need public advocates, public representatives, public oversight,” including “a watchdog that watches Congress.”

In the question period, Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, expressed appreciation to Snowden for leaking evidence of government mass surveillance and blowing the whistle on private companies complicit.  “We have Ed to thank for that,” he said, to loud applause.

How to protect yourself

Snowden also shared advice about how citizens can protect themselves online. “There are basic steps” to take, including using full disk encryption, network encryption via SSL, browser plug-ins such as NoScript and cookie-blockers, and the Tor anonymization service.