Ed Snowden speaks to fellow sysadmins at SXSW

Ed Snowden spoke to his fellow system administrators at SXSW Interactive in Austin today. Embed video below.

This is the best quality recoding I could find at this point. According to the introduction by ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner, Snowden’s image and voice came from an undisclosed location in Russia to the conference through 7 proxies.

Snowden’s remarks focused on the part that the technical community can play in restoring privacy by developing and deploying better encryption standards for business and individuals.

Some of his main points: (1) The NSA and the CIA have deliberately concentrated on offensive operations to the exclusion, and even weakening, of our defenses (in the process re-enacting the infamous parable of the man who lives in a glass house throwing stones); (2) This preoccupation with offense and mass surveillance activities so distracted the FBI and other 3 letter agencies that they failed to stop both the underwear Boston bombers — in spite of the fact that the man’s father in the first case, and Russian intelligence in the second, warned them of the danger beforehand; (3) Encryption works and should be made available and used everywhere, by everyone to protect their own privacy and that of those they interact with.

Full transcript is available from inside.com.

Here’s an extended quote that gets to the heart of the matter:

When we think about what has been happening at the NSA for the past decade, in the post 9-11 era, the result has been an adversarial internet. Sort of a global free fire zone for governments that is nothing that we ever asked for. It is not what we want. It is something that we need to protect against. When we think about policies that have advanced: the sort of erosion of fourth amendment protections, the proactive seizure of communications, there is a policy response that needs to occur. But there’s also a technical response that needs to occur. And it’s the is the makers, the thinkers, development community that can really craft the solutions that can make sure we are safe.

The NSA, the sort of global mass surveillance that is occurring in all of these countries (not just the US — it’s important to remember that this is a global issue), they’re setting fire to the future of the internet. The people who are in the room now, you guys, are all the firefighters and we need you to help us fix this.

For practical advice on what people can do to protect their privacy now:

For me there are a couple of key technologies; there is full disk encryption to protect your actual physical computer and devices in case they are seized. Then there are network encryption which are things like SSL that added sort of transparency we can’t help that. You can install a couple of browser plug ins. NoScript to block Active X attempts in the browser, Ghostery to block ads and tracking cookies. But there is also TOR, T-O-R is a mixed routing network which is very important because it is encrypted from the user through the ISP to the end of sort of a cloud a network of routers that you go through. Because of this your ISP, your communications provider can no longer spy on you be default. The way they do now, today when you go to any website. By using TOR you shift their focus to either attacking the TOR cloud itself which is incredible difficult, or to try to monitor the exits from TOR and the entrances to TOR and then try to figure out what fits. And it is very difficult.


1. There are numerous articles on the Internet about how to implement full disk encryption on Windows and Linux. For example, there’s a two year-old howto on enabling LUKS on Linux here (I mention the age of the article only to show that these kinds of solutions have been available on free software platforms for a long time).

2. Firefox plugins like Ghostery and NoScript have also been around for awhile, and still do a great job of both protecting systems and alerting users to the many threats to privacy that they can encounter even in a brief browsing session. Both do require an investment of time and some effort to properly configure, and sometimes must be disabled to use popular sites that refuse to adhere to even the most basic security standards. Even in those cases, however, it is better to know you’re in dangerous waters than to simply plow through in ignorance.

3. The Tor Project’s Browser Bundle is a handy addition to anyone’s Internet cruising toolbox, and I’ve actually found it especially helpful in getting unbiased search results even when looking for answers to technical questions. Of course there are many other situations where you’d want to sheild your identity or that of another while surfing the net (it might be a good idea, for example, to steer children towards the use of Tor for browsing in order to discourage outsiders from harvesting information about their movements).

All of the above solutions are free and open source. That means they’re not only accessible to the poorest Internet user but also, most importantly, fully auditable by security experts who would be able to discover any backdoors or malicious coding that could threaten user privacy.

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About phil

My name is Phil Lembo. In my day job I’m an enterprise IT architect for a leading distribution and services company. The rest of my time I try to maintain a semi-normal family life in the suburbs of Raleigh, NC. E-mail me at philipATlembobrothersDOTcom. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own and not those of my employers, past, present or future (except where I quote others, who will need to accept responsibility for their own rants).