Edward Snowden Says Encryption Is The Only Way To Counter Mass Surveillance


NSA leaker Edward Snowden (Credit:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden (Credit:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden (Credit:

Consumers and companies need to invest in encryption if they want to weaken governments’ dragnet surveillance, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden said Monday in front of a live audience Monday via video at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Snowden, currently living in Russia, reiterated that mass surveillance by businesses and governments is the biggest threat to national and individual security. During the hour-long discussion, Snowden focused on how mass surveillance and indiscriminate data collection by both erodes individual privacy and national security. Given the intelligence community’s unwillingness to reform their tactics, the only way to combat surveillance is for consumers and the tech world to expand the use of encryption and other cybersecurity tools.

“Encryption is the defense against the dark arts for the digital realm,” Snowden said.

On top of widespread encryption use, eliminating the backdoor data access with tech companies such as Google and Facebook will make surveillance harder but will help force the NSA and other government agencies to limit data collection and storage to what’s necessary. Larger companies, and the government, should only collect data and hold it for only as long as it makes good business sense:”You can still get the value out of the [data],” without holding it indefinitely.

“The U.S. government still has no idea what documents I have because encryption works,” Snowden said at the American Civil Liberties Union-hosted event. Encryption also makes surveillance more difficult — and expensive — and would force agencies such as the National Security Agency to severely curtail data collection.

President Obama announced a plan in January to scale back the NSA’s surveillance program but stopped short of barring mass data collection, as an advisory panel had urged. In his speech, Obama called on Congress to determine how and where the NSA’s phone should be stored.

Snowden said he chose to speak to the tech community at SXSW they can “fix” things faster than Congress enacts legislation.“There’s a policy response that needs to occur, but there’s also a technical response,” that’s needed, Snowden said.

Snowden’s much-anticipated appearance was, unsurprisingly, greeted with some opposition. Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo (R) urged SXSW in an open letter to remove Snowden from the event, arguing it condoned “lawlessness” and perpetuated an “ongoing intentional distortion of truth that he and his media enablers have engaged in.” Monday’s live video chat was a first, and the latest, in a sporadic string of appearances in the wake of his historic leaking of thousands of records exposing NSA surveillance practices in 2013. Since leaving the United States and seeking asylum abroad last year, Snowden has participated in a handful of online chats and videocasts but has denied any requests for one-on-one or face-to-face interviews.

Snowden has become increasingly more vocal over the past year, upping his virtual appearances in bimonthly intervals. The Snowden leaks have sparked national debate on privacy and government surveillance practices, creating a rift through both political parties and setting the stage for revamped platforms.

Members in the intelligence community, Congress, the Obama Administration and public in general have conflicting feelings about Snowden, with prominent officials accusing him of treason while others have called him a hero or a “civil disobedient.”