Edward Snowden held an (admittedly ironic) Google hangout at the SXSW interactive conference today, piping his video through seven proxy servers from Russia, where he's in hiding from U.S. prosecutors after becoming what the ACLU has dubbed the "largest and most profound whistleblower in history."
(In fact, Kansas congressman Rep. Mike Pompeo wrote an open letter to SXSW organizers asking them to cancel this talk, dubbing Snowden "both a traitor and a common criminal.")
Though his life has clearly been ruined, Snowden showed little regret over the consequences of his decision to leak evidence that the National Security Agency was engaging is massive and unprecedented secret bulk surveillance of telecommunications both inside and outside the United States.
"Would I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes," he said, through his dodgy video signal. "I took an oath to support and defend the constitution and I saw the constitution was being violated on a massive scale. The interpretation of the constitution had been changed in secret from no unreasonable search and seizure to every seizure is fine, just don’t search it. And that’s something the public ought to know."
The former CIA analyst further elaborated on his motivation for taking and releasing these documents to journalists like Glenn Greenwald, who will also be a speaker at South-by-Southwest later today, via video from Brazil as he, too, cannot enter the United States.
"When I went public with this, it wasn't so I could single-handedly change the government, tell them what to do and override what the public thinks is proper. What I wanted to do was to inform the public, so they could make a decision, so they could provide their consent for what we should be doing.”
"The government has never said any one of these stories have risked a human life," he added, in his defense. "The result is that the public, the government and every society in the world has benefited. We have more secure communications and we have a civic interaction about what’s being done." And the result isn't just about the government but also protecting people from, say, a hacker at Starbucks.
Snowden also attacked the NSA for its entire offensive approach to telecommunications security. "America has more to lose than anyone else. When you are the one country in the world who has sort of a vault that's more full than anyone else's it doesn’t make sense for you to be attacking all day and never defending your full vault.”
Denying charges that his actions have hurt America's national security, Snowden said, "No, they have improved our national security. We rely on the ability to trust our communications and without that we have nothing, our economy won’t succeed."
He attacked NSA Chief James Clapper for "lying" to Congress and not receiving "criticism or even a strongly worded letter" for it, and blamed intelligence failures, like the Boston Bombing, on the fact that "we're monitoring everybody's communications instead of suspects' communications. We didn’t follow up, we didn’t investigate this guy, because we spent all of this money and time hacking into Google and Facebook's back-ends."
Being a tech conference, much of the conversation revolved around encryption and making it accessible to the average person, so that rather than engaging in bulk surveillance, governments would have to target individual suspects. Snowden implored those in attendance to help push this technology forward.
"The NSA, this global mass surveillance that's happening in all these countries, not just the U.S., they're setting fire to future of the internet.
"And you, everyone in this room, you're the firefighters."