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Snowden: NSA 'Set Fire' to Internet, Techies Are 'Firefighters'

Image: Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden speaks via satellite video at SXSW Interactive on March 10. Texas Tribune

Edward Snowden accused the NSA and its counterparts of "setting fire to the future of the Internet" during a videoconference discussion at South by Southwest in Texas on Monday, and he called on the tech community members in the audience to be "the firefighters."

Snowden spoke remotely from Russia, where he received asylum when he fled the United States last year after leaking classified government surveillance documents to journalists including Glenn Greenwald.

His 11 a.m. CT appearance at SXSW, a technology and music festival in Austin, Tex., were his most public comments since the leaks. The Texas Tribune livestreamed the Snowden event.

Snowden, who appeared in front of a greenscreen displaying the U.S. Constitution, explained that he chose popular tech confab SXSW as the platform for his talk because "the tech community ... they're the folks who can really fix things, who can enforce our rights."

Snowden characterized the NSA's surveillance program, as well as similar programs from governments around the globe, as "setting fire to the future of the Internet."

"The people in this room are all the firefighters," Snowden said, addressing the SXSW audience. "We need you to help us fix this."

"The people in this room are all the firefighters. We need you to help us fix this."

Also on the panel was Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, who agreed with Snowden on his call to action.

"We need to lock things down," Soghoian said. "We need to make services secure out of the box. It's going to require a rethink from developers."

Snowden spent most of his portion of the talk stressing a point he has made in past comments: He has a problem with unfocused mass surveillance, not targeted monitoring of specific suspects' activity.

"We've actually had tremendous intelligence failures because we're monitoring .... everyone's communications," Snowden said.

And if the NSA conducts such surveillance, Snowden said, he fears that the technique of sifting massive amounts of data will continue to spread across the world.

"If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained," he said, the global community will be given "the green light to do the same."

Both Snowden and Soghoian also talked about ways people may protect their Internet activity, saying that encrypting communications will make mass surveillance more expensive. Snowden acknowledged that some of those precautions can be complex for the average users.

"If you're a target of the NSA, it's game over no matter what," Soghoian added.

The panel closed with a question-and-answer session, in which an audience member asked Snowden if he felt what he did was "worth it" given his exile from his homeland.

"Regardless of what happens to me, this was something that we had the right to know." Snowden said.

Soghoian acknowledged that "some people watching" may disagree with Snowden's actions.

"Let me be clear about one thing: His disclosures have improved Internet security," Soghoian said.

Tim Berners-Lee, who is called the creator of the modern Internet, also passed along his thanks during the Q&A, saying he believes Snowden's “actions are profoundly in the public interest.”

The large SXSW audience also appeared to be largely in support of Snowden, and clapped several times as he spoke.

Snowden broke into a broad smile at the applause that came at the end of his discussion.

"Thank you, Austin!" he said.

Snowden's appearance infuriated at least one lawmaker: In a letter published publicly on Friday, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., called on SXSW's organizers to take Snowden off the bill.

"When I served in the Army along the Iron Curtain we had a word for a person who absconds with information and provides it to another nation: traitor," Pompeo wrote. He also called Snowden a "common criminal." The ACLU's Ben Wizner, who moderated the discussion with Snowden, read part of Pompeo's letter aloud before Snowden appeared on screen.

The SXSW festival also featured a video talk with Snowden supporter Julian Assange on Saturday, in which the Wikileaks founder reportedly called the NSA "a rogue agency."