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Edward Snowden issues 'call to arms' for tech companies in secret SXSW meeting

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Golden Frog

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was a highlight of last year's SXSW, where he gave one of his first public speeches. This year, Snowden was back at SXSW — but only a few people even knew it was happening. Snowden held a streamed question-and-answer session with roughly two dozen people from across the technology and policy world, which participant Sunday Yokubaitis, president of online privacy company Golden Frog, described as a "call to arms" for tech companies to foil spying with better privacy tools.

According to Yokubaitis, Snowden said that as policy reform lagged, companies should adopt more secure technology that could block surveillance altogether or make it too difficult to pursue en masse. A big focus was end-to-end encryption, which would mean no one (including companies) could see the contents of communications except the sender and recipient. "The low-hanging fruit is always [the] transit layer," he reportedly said. "It raises the cost. Every time we raise the cost, we force budgetary constraints." This is especially relevant as tools that are originally built for targeted use overseas slowly grow into broader programs. "We hope that they start with North Korea and by the time they end up in Ohio, they run out of budget."

Snowden described common security systems like SSL, meanwhile, as "critical infrastructure" that didn't receive enough investment and became vulnerable as a result. And if encryption isn't common enough, simply using it can mark a message as suspicious, which is part of the reason companies should be working on better encryption options. "Him saying that validates that companies should try and fill the holes, and not wait for policy," said Yokubaitis after the meeting.

"Spying programs are worth more than the interests of justice."

On the policy side, Snowden criticized proposals to expand rules that make phone companies open their networks for government wiretapping. FBI director James Comey has warned that internet services and tech products need similar backdoors to stop cases from "going dark" as criminals moved to the internet. "We can't have CALEA — Part 2," he said, according to Yokubaitis. He also said that penalties were too light for NSA employees who spied on spouses or lovers — informally referred to as LOVEINT. "This proves that spying programs are worth more than the interests of justice." And he thought that the public should pay more attention to NSA programs that tried to discredit enemies by spying on their online sexual activities. "How does using porn habits to discredit people make us much different than [the] Turkish government? We need to maintain moral leadership."

Snowden SXSW

"I really got the sense that I'm helping to improve lives."

Contacted for comment, Hugh Forrest of SXSW said that the meeting was kept private to create a more "intimate" atmosphere. "Last year, having Edward Snowden in the big room was fantastic. But for 2015, we wanted to do something a lot more intimate," he said. "So, this morning's event was an invite-only session with about 30 tech leaders who are attending SXSW. The smaller group allowed for more in-depth questions, answers, ideas, brainstorms and discussion that simply can not be done in the kind of space where we hosted his talk in 2014." Besides Yokubaitis, the meeting was reportedly attended by between 20 and 30 people, including Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Twitter senior product counsel Matthew Zimmerman, and Evernote CEO Phil Libin, among others. There was no directive to keep the meeting secret after the fact, so some participants, like Center for Democracy and Technology director Nuala O'Connor, tweeted Snowden selfies.

Snowden made clear that he wasn't leaking any new information in his meeting. But according to Yokubaitis, he did speak on a slightly more personal note, saying that he would like to see enough public support to safely return home. "[The] government hasn't felt the pressure; they don't care about petitions, they need higher-level pressure. It is not a legal issue, it is a political issue." He also said, as he had before, that he'd do it again. "I have gained so much. I have the ability to contribute in a much more meaningful way. I really got the sense that I'm helping to improve lives. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning. And that's something that you can't get from almost anything other than maintaining a guiding principle that you believe in very strongly."