AUSTIN (USATODAY.com) - Edward Snowden says the National Security Agency is "setting fire to the future of the Internet" with the clandestine tech snooping program he exposed last year - and the tech community needs to help "fix" it.
In his first direct address to an American audience Monday, the fugitive NSA contractor told an audience of several thousand people attending the South By Southwest conference he had no regrets about his decision to leak thousands of secret documents.
"Would I do it again? Absolutely. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to," Snowden said via teleconference from Russia, where he has been granted asylum.
"I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution," said Snowden, whose choppy video feed was the result of it being relayed through seven proxy computer servers to hide his exact location.
"I saw the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale," he said, to thunderous applause from about 3,000 people at the Austin Convention Center.
"South By Southwest and the tech community, the people in the room in Austin, they're the folks who can fix this," said Snowden, with a copy of the U.S. Constitution as a backdrop. "There's a political response that needs to occur, but there's also a tech response that needs to occur."
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Part of the tech solution, he said, is better awareness among Internet users and enhanced security products to shield their online information from prying eyes.
NSA declined to comment.
Snowden called upon the technology community to act as firefighters and put out the blaze. One thing they could do is to build easy-to-use privacy and encryption software, so that mass surveillance is more difficult for the government to do.
Encryption software encodes messages so they can be read only by the intended recipient. That should be "the default for online communication," said Rainey Reitman with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. EFF is a civil liberties group that focuses on the digital world.
Currently most privacy software is simply too complex for most consumers to easily use. Snowden referenced Tor in his talk. It is software and a network that allows users to browse without anyone being able to see what sites they have visited.
Another popular program is PGP, which allows individuals to encrypt their e-mail. but it's difficult to use. "Expecting hundreds of millions of people to use PGP is not the answer," Reitman said.
Protecting Americans' privacy shouldn't be on consumers' shoulders, she said. "We need policy changes, and legislation from Congress."
Snowden made other points about privacy as well. One was that companies are under no legal mandate to store information about their customers or their transactions.
Messages that aren't stored can't be searched. He called on companies to not hang on to information they don't need.
Snowden made a key distinction between government surveillance and snooping by private Internet companies. He said he considers government surveillance more insidious because "the government has the ability to deprive you of rights. They can jail you."
Governments "have police powers, have military powers, have intelligence powers. They can literally kill you," Snowden said.
Snowden noted the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures."
The NSA's massive surveillance and storage of electronic communications between Americans has shifted that, he said. "The interpretation of the Constitution has been changed, in secret, from 'No unreasonable search and seizure,' to 'Hey, any seizure is fine, just don't start searching.'"
The hour-long session was hosted by the ACLU and live-streamed by the Texas Tribune, a non-profit media organization. Snowden was interrupted several times by applause and was given a standing ovation by many after the session.
Snowden took questions from Twitter. The first came from Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web 25 years ago this week. Berners-Lee asked Snowden what he would change about the nation's surveillance system.
"We need public oversight ... some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us," Snowden said. "We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we're not informed, we can't consent to these (government) policies."
Allowing "the NSA to continue unrestrained" it gives a "green light" to other countries, he added.
Not everyone sees Snowden as a champion of American freedom. In a letter to SXSW organizers, Congressman Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said, "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 called Snowden a "common criminal" and said conference organizers could have done better than having someone speak "whose only apparent qualification is his willingness to steal from his own government and then flee to that beacon of First Amendment freedoms, the Russia of Vladimir Putin."
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise