Edward Snowden, appearing on screen via Google Hangout, was welcomed with applause at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Austin, TX, on Monday, March 10. Snowden joined a discussion on government spying and online security which also featured Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU.
“SXSW and the tech community ... they’re the folks who can really fix things,” Snowden said when asked why he chose to speak to the tech community instead of policy groups.
While Snowden and the panel discussed NSA surveillance programs, cyber security, and government oversight, another major focus of the discussion was what consumers can do to protect their privacy. At the moment, Snowden said, the NSA needs to go through companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook to collect user information. The agency cannot get this data simply by going through Verizon, AT&T, or other major communication companies.While the people at Google and Facebook say they are angry over the NSA going through back-door channels to collect data on their users, it shows how vulnerable free networks are. After all, the primary focus of Google is not securing consumer data, but monetizing it. If consumers want to better protect their information, they either have to rethink their relationship with the online companies they trust with their data or they need to look into encryption software and browsers -- like Tor.
“Many of the tools we’re using are made by advertising companies," Snowden said. "They are designed to facilitate the disclosure of data to third-parties.”
What many privacy advocates don't stop to think about is that they have full control over what data these companies have access to because they choose what information they share. The same people who argue for more privacy security online are the same people who put all of their personal information on their Facebook accounts or agree to the Terms and Conditions of Google without reading the fine print that data collected by the company will be shared with third parties so that Google can profit off it -- Google of course will not use those words verbatim.
People can and should actively advocate for more accountability from the federal government, but we can also take measures to better protect our own information. If users are concerned about what data companies and the government are collecting, they should consider encryption software and services. Snowden said that the best evidence that encryption works is the fact that the U.S. has a huge team trying to track him and they haven't been able to.
"Encryption does work. It’s the defense against the dark arts for the digital realm," he said.
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