World and Nation

Snowden tries to rally tech conference to buttress privacy shields

AUSTIN, Texas — Edward J. Snowden wants the technology industry to get serious about protecting the privacy of its users and customers.

“When we think about what is happening at the NSA for the last decade, the result has been an adversarial Internet,” Snowden told a crowd of developers and entrepreneurs at the South by Southwest conference Monday, speaking by videoconference.

“They are setting fire to the future of the Internet,” he added. “You guys are all the firefighters. We need you to help us fix this.”

Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents that revealed a vast network of government surveillance, told the audience that they “can enforce our rights for technical standards.”

Snowden said he chose the conference, known as SXSW, to speak directly to people with the skills to make mass surveillance significantly more expensive for government agencies — if not impossible. For the past decade, Snowden said, the NSA had been given free rein to make the Internet less secure by engaging in large-scale sweeps of data.

Snowden fled the United States last summer and is living at an undisclosed location in Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum. He faces charges in the United States of violating the Espionage Act.

Snowden appeared remotely at the conference with Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and Snowden’s legal adviser, both of whom were on site in Austin. The event was a rare live interview for Snowden, conducted by Wizner.

Using technology to mask his whereabouts, Snowden appeared through a Google Plus videoconference.

Appearing before a green screen that had been programmed to display the U.S. Constitution, Snowden addressed a rapt audience that often broke into applause and cheers. Hundreds packed into an exhibition hall to hear him speak and those who could not find seats stood along the wall or sat on the floor.

Leading up to the event, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote a letter to SXSW organizers calling for them to cancel the event altogether.

Snowden said he had no regrets about his actions, even though he now faces prosecution and is thought by many to be a traitor, or worse.

“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and it was violated on a massive scale,” he said.