“There's an exodus of national security reporters,” Wikileaks' infamous leader Julian Assange told thousands at SXSW's interactive conference in Austin, Texas today. “National security reporters are a new type of refugee.”
Of course, he told them this via Skype because he remains in asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He's not the only speaker who couldn't make it in person. For the past 21 years, tech leaders, journalists and politicians have clamoured to speak at SXSW, which now attracts 30,000 annual attendees. But on Monday, NSA leaker Edward Snowden will be doing so from exile in Russia while his journalist collaborator Glenn Greenwald will be speaking from Brazil.
Assange also named American documentary filmmaker and Snowden supporter Laura Poitras, Wikileaks' Sarah Harrison and Tor project’s Jacob Appelbaum, as reporters who had to flee their countries to continue their work.
Assange describes his current embassy home as “a bit like prison” (albeit one where he says he got to meet novelist Alice Walker this morning) but it’s one that has its perks, too.
“Yes, it is difficult. But I am able to continue working. And to some degree I exist in a situation which is every national security reporter's dream, which is to be in a land without police, in a land without subpoenas. In this embassy, the British police cannot come in, the Ecuadorian police cannot come in, no subpoenas can come in. It is, to a degree, a no-man’s land as far as coercion is concerned."
But that is a small silver lining, as far as Assange is concerned. Refugees flee war and that is how Assange sees what’s going on online. He describes the NSA as a “rogue agency” and its intelligence gathering programs like PRISM, which Snowden's documents revealed, as a “a military occupation of the internet."
“How has it come to this?” he wondered. “How is it that the internet that everyone looked upon as perhaps the greatest tool of human creation, that had ever been, had in fact been co-opted and was now involved in the most aggressive form of state surveillance the world has ever seen?”
Assange said the Obama administration wasn't "serious" about reigning in the NSA, but also that it probably had no choice.
“Who really wears the pants in the administration? Is it the intelligence agencies, or is it the civilian part of that administration?" he asked rhetorically, noting that while on paper Obama would have the power to disband the NSA or CIA, in reality that would be impossible.
“People would come up with some type of dirt. The National Security Agency, having intercepted all this information, has dirt on everyone. Congress would impeach him for some act or another, or he would have been found to have committed some criminal act.”
Assange went on to warn that we were moving into “a new totalitarian world, not totalitarian in the sense of Stalin or Pol Pot, but in the sense that the surveillance is total.” But, he added later, “If history is any guide, you'll then get the other forms of totalitarianism as well."
Assange did touch on other topics -- including Ukraine, income inequality and future Wikileaks leaks, which he says are forthcoming -- but kept returning to the dangers of digital surveillance and the importance of leaking information about it.
“We are actually living in a world that we don't understand. Before all this material came out, CableGate or what we did with the Iraq war, or Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA, we were going about our business in what we thought was the world. But we weren't living in the world: we were living in some fictitious representation of what we thought was the world. And we are still living in this fictitious representation,” he said, his "Matrix" allusions going over well in this techie crowd.
“We are living in an illusion, where the true history of the world, the true nature of our environment, the true nature of the way human institutions behave, is all obscured by some kind of fog. We're walking around constantly through this fog where we can’t even see the ground. We think we can see the ground, but we’re wrong. And every so often, a clearing in the fog happens when there’s one of these grand disclosures.
And we see the ground, and we're surprised.”
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