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Summary:

Average people are not going to use Tor and other tools used by the tech community, says Edward Snowden. That’s why widespread encryption is our best hopes to counter mass government surveillance.

Edward Snowden in his first public speaking appearance at SXSW on March 10, 2014.

Encrypting our communications is the best way to thwart mass government surveillance programs, according to fugitive whistle blower Edward Snowden, who appeared via live-stream at the SXSW tech festival in Austin on Monday.

Snowden, whose leaks have exposed secret data collection operations between the NSA and major U.S. companies, claims that is impossible for specific individuals to hide from the government, but that encryption will render the current practice of mass surveillance expensive and impractical.

“Encryption is the defense against the dark arts for the digital realm,” Snowden said, appearing against a backdrop of the Constitution, and protected by what he described as “7 proxies” – an apparent allusion to a 4Chan meme.

Snowden’s remarks came as part of a public discussion with ACLU lawyer Christopher Soghoian over how to take privacy techniques employed by tech enthusiasts — which Snowden described as “firefighters” who can oppose those who are “setting fire to the future of the internet” – and make them accessible to average people.

“Most regular people are not going to go out and download an obscure encryption app,” noted Snowden, adding that large companies can easily take steps to help their customers communicate in a more secure fashion. He cited Google’s decision in 2010 to add SSL to its services, which “made passive surveillance much more difficult.”

Snowden also singled out two government officials, the NSA’s Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander, for doing more harm to the internet and U.S. national security than anyone else. He claimed the men make a strategic mistake by reconfiguring NSA cyber operations into an offensive rather than a defensive role, and that attacks launched by the agency have hurt privacy without making the country any safer.

“When you have a vault that’s more full than anyone else’s, it does’t make sense to attack. When you set the standards for vaults worldwide, it makes no sense to have a big backdoor,” he said, an allusion to the NSA’s controversial practice of compromising global encryption standards so the agency can tap into devices and networks.

In addition to urging major tech companies to offer encryption as a common feature, Snowden also suggested Tor as a way to preserve privacy, although he acknowledged such tools are still beyond the capacity of average internet users.

Snowden also took questions via Twitter, including one from my colleague David Meyer, and received multiple ovations from a partisan crowd. The overall discussion hewed closely to tech topics, and did not broach geopolitical questions such as the relative moral standings of governments like China or Russia, where Snowden is now taking refuge.

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  1. “…received multiple ovations from a partisan crowd.”

    “…did not broach geopolitical questions such as the relative moral standings of governments like China or Russia, where Snowden is now taking refuge.”

    I love the undercurrent of bias in your piece.

    I’m sure he’d rather be in a different country, if they’d offer him asylum from your overlords.

    1. Jeff John Roberts Taz Monday, March 10, 2014

      Thanks for your comment, Taz. But do you not think it’s fair to ask us about Russia? For my part, I appreciate what Snowden has taught us about the US surveillance apparatus, but it’s also useful to recall that leaders like Putin are more frightening than the NSA..

      1. Except it was outside the scope of the discussion at hand.

        Why not just ask Snowden about all the other despotic regimes in the world, while you’re at it? Or is it just because he’s living (or passed through) the countries in question? And, why is it even remotely relevant?

        Your remark at the end is designed as a passive aggressive dig at his ‘choice’ of country to reside in.

        1. Jeff John Roberts Taz Monday, March 10, 2014

          Taz, it really was not just a “dig” and I think the point is relevant to the discussion. I think this was a missed opportunity to broaden the debate by including views from the security or poli-sci community — as it was, this felt like Snowden and the ACLU taking a victory lap and preaching to the converted.

          Once again, I’m not seeking to downplay the significance of what Snowden revealed; I agree with a lot of what he has to say. I just wish more of this discussion would take place outside of the tech world.

  2. A lot of people are just putting Tor on their PC/laptops thinking that they’re instantly anonymous and they aren’t. It’s no secret that the U.S. and U.S. intelligence friendly countries operate exit nodes expressly for the purpose of monitoring them (your data on that last hop is unencrypted).

    Be wary of the browser bundle from Tor. This bundle is the subject of special interest by U.S. authorities and they are constantly trying to exploit whatever version of Firefox that it uses and was recently successful ( http://arstechnica.com/security/2013/08/attackers-wield-firefox-exploit-to-uncloak-anonymous-tor-users/ ).

    You could take the DIY route to be safe and just build a Tor router (powered by Linux) but you need to be a geek to do it or if you just want a fast solution get a PAPARouter ( http://paparouter.com ). It’s inexpensive (less than $100.00), allows you to anonymize several devices at once and best of all it excludes all U.S. and U.S. intelligence friendly exit nodes ( over 50 at last count ) built into it. Given all the uproar that other countries are having with U.S. spying ( and rightfully so ), making your last Tor relay outside of the U.S. to your target site is great security and using https would be massive protection by encrypting your data from that last hop to the target site. The EFF has a great interactive page that demonstrates this.

    TOR AND HTTPS PAGE
    https://www.eff.org/pages/tor-and-https

  3. Charles Gaines Monday, March 10, 2014

    ^This a thousand times. Somebody like Snowden in Russia or China would be either a) in prison forever or b) murdered without trial.

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