Early Monday morning, more than 3000 people filed into an auditorium at South by Southwest to see a jittery video stream of Edward Snowden, the man behind the NSA leaks that have become inescapable in the last eight months. The stream kept stalling, often coming off more like a series of stills than a video. Even worse, for a talk that focused so much on encrypted communications, the channel wasn’t secure. "The irony that we’re using Google Hangouts to talk to Ed Snowden has not been lost on me," said Chris Soghoian, part of the ACLU team that put the event together.
But from another angle, it made perfect sense. Here was the world’s most famous IT professional, using the power of the web to speak in a country where he would be arrested on sight. The audience was exactly what you’d expect at SXSW, technologists and coders, the kind of people who make tools like Google Hangouts. And, befitting the venue, all Snowden wanted to talk about was tech.
"The irony that we're using Google Hangouts to talk to Ed Snowden has not been lost on me."
Together with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and First Look Media’s Glenn Greenwald, there were three whistleblower-reporters giving featured speeches at SXSW this year, each one appearing remotely because of a combination of espionage charges and informal intimidation by government officials. Assange described them as a new refugee class of national security reporter, but in 2014, this kind of effective exile turns out to be surprisingly little hindrance. Even piped in from an undisclosed location in Russia, Snowden can give interviews and appear on stage. As most of Washington is struggling to chase him into a jail cell, an interactive media conference has somehow become neutral ground.
The sudden shift towards whistleblowers came straight from the community, in line with SXSW’s normal policy of semi-crowdsourced events pulled in from different independent groups. According to organizers, Assange was first booked back in July, when the NSA leaks were still fresh. "We postulated that [the audience] would care and would want to see something besides well trod talks about platforms or the usual tech suspects or app launches," said a member of the Barbarian Group, the team that arranged the Assange event. "Judging by the response and the press it generated, we were right."
When the ACLU called in November to set up a last-minute Snowden interview, adding him to the schedule was an easy call. "I think that having him on the schedule is an inherently political thing. You can’t avoid that," says Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. Not everyone was happy. When it first came out that Snowden would speak at the conference, less than a week before he was scheduled to appear, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) preemptively accused the conference of "provid[ing] a venue to an at-large criminal who has refused extradition to answer for his crimes in court."
The surprising thing was how much time Snowden spent on technical details like the mechanics of end-to-end encryption or the importance of solid encryption standards, rather than the political problems of NSA reform. "They are setting fire to the future of the internet," he told the crowd, in what seemed designed to be the standout quote of the talk "And the people in the room now, you guys are the firefighters." But even then he was phrasing it specifically in terms of the politics of the web, and the audience was more likely to walk away ready to install GnuPG than write their congressman. It was an unexpected angle, but a politically smart one. "I liked how it ended up being a very technical talk," Forrest says. "That was a good fit for this audience."
Snowden was pushing a new idea, NSA reform as a kind of best practices for the modern web
Of course, not everyone took the same tack. Greenwald tackled the politics head-on, calling out US efforts to keep Snowden in Russia and the pervasive shift to secrecy within government – but he was doing it to a half-full exhibit hall. Assange took on the plight of the modern whistleblower in exile, but even that was a story we’ve heard before. Snowden was pushing a new idea, NSA reform as a kind of best practices for the modern web. As the moderator Chris Soghoian from the ACLU put it, "There are people [who] think Ed is wrong. But let me be clear about one thing. Ed’s disclosure has improved internet security."
Instead a theoretical point about the nature of the state, Snowden’s new argument is about something closer to engineering. The people at South by Southwest are tasked with securing the internet, for better or worse. Every time someone finds a workaround for SSL encryption or a bug in Apple’s security protocol, it makes the whole industry look bad. After eight months of bad news, the industry is palpably tired of it, and ready to push back. That response is shaping up to be a crucial front for NSA reform, even if so far it’s been overshadowed by bigger issues like bulk surveillance. It’s a new kind of fight, rallying around the tools of the web itself.
This week, we got our first look at that fight. As it turned out, it looked like a glitchy video stream. The signal was choppy, but the message was clear.