Thursday, June 5, 2014

Snowden Urges Privacy Fight

The NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden today—on the one-year anniversary of the first published surveillance leak from his revelations—urged those attending the annual Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan to "take back their privacy with technology."

Appearing via Google Hangouts from Russia in a conversation moderated from the PDF stage by Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow, Snowden said "we're seeing a growing appetite for surveillance control among government institutions and it is something we're not just seeing locally, but around the world." A year ago, Snowden said, "none of us really had the full picture" about how far the government had gone to track citizen cellphone calls as well as facial images across the social sphere. Today? "Public interest in privacy has grown," Snowden says. People are worried about their privacy again. "Our government has created programs that are watching not just everybody in America, but also everybody in the world."

The good news? Snowden says Netizens don't have to rely on governments to protect their privacy rights anymore. "We're past the point where citizens are entirely dependent on governments to defend our rights," he said. "We don't have to ask. We can take back our privacy with technology."

Snowden endorsed the Reset the Net campaign, officially launched from the PDF stage earlier today, which calls on tech companies and citizens to work harder to strengthen privacy rights online and "shut off the lights to government surveillance" by popularizing anti-snooping technology. The campaign, backed by a nonprofit called Fight for the Future—the group behind last year's successful Stop SOPA initiative—urges major websites like Google, Tumblr, Wordpress, Twitter, Dropbox, Tumblr and others to promote consumer encryption tools that would make it harder and more expensive for the NSA to snoop indiscriminately on American citizens. The campaign also is working to drive more Web traffic to a coalition of personal encryption companies like Text Secure, ChatSecure, RedPhone and others. "Today, we can begin the work of effectively shutting down the collection of our online communications, even if the U.S. Congress fails to do the same," Snowden said. "The first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance is to adopt encryption."

One of the nation's top encryption experts, Bruce Schneier, addressing PDFers just before Snowden, said fighting back also will require legal firepower and a more strident, pro-privacy mindset among public advocates of greater privacy. "Fighting back is going to be, primarily, a legal battle and we (who oppose government spying) are not going to win this unless we also win the social battle"—meaning the fight for more citizens' hearts and minds, Schneier said.

"The drivers of all of this surveillance and control," said Schneier, "are fear and convenience—if you're the U.S., it's the fear of terrorism, and if you're China, it's fear of citizens rebelling—and convenience, of all of these products and services we consumers have at our fingertips. As long as people on the street are scared [about security threats] and want free stuff," Snowden added, "we are not going to do better here. We've got to fix these things."

Both Schneier and Snowden called on netizens to get more political, and Barlow suggested people also need to exhibit more courage. [Barlow used the PDF stage to announce the launch of the Courage Foundation, a fund amassed to support Snowden's legal defense.] But Snowden insisted he didn't do anything that anyone in the audience wouldn't have done themselves, were they in his position, knowing what he knew at the time. "I'm no hero," he said. "...We all have the ability as citizens to act."

"When I look over the last year," Snowden added, "I had to give up a lot to do what I did, and my biggest fear was that nobody would care or talk about this. But people in this room today show me how wrong I was. The fact that we are talking about this here, today, means we will get a better, more accountable government. All I did was return information to public hands that should have never been turned over in the first place."

PDF14 continues through Friday afternoon. Watch this space for updates.

— Marcia Stepanek

[Twitter photo, top, by CauseGlobal]

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