The NSA set fire to the Internet’s future. The people in this room are all the firefighters. –Edward Snowden at SXSW

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower in exile, spoke to the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas today. He appeared via a choppy videostream which was said to be routed through seven proxy servers. Joining the conversation in person were the ACLU’s Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian.

In a crowded exhibit hall, Edward Snowden appears by livestream.

Edward Snowden appeared by video chat at Austin, Texas’ SXSW Interactive to ask the tech community to increase privacy & security.

As the talk began, the atmosphere in the room itself was enlightening. I overheard many people joking, with a touch of discomfort, about whether they were now on an NSA list for attending, about how many Feds might be in the audience. “Can they arrest a few thousand of us on the way out?” quipped a woman seated next to me. In a sense, most of the tech geeks around me seemed to consider themselves dissidents.

The event was not without controversy. As the ACLU panelists reminded us, in the days leading up to the panel Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo made vague threats against SXSW and told them to cancel the Snowden speech.

Snowden, by contrast, opened by telling us how important it was to speak directly to the computer industry via SXSW. The reason he made one of his first virtual appearances in Austin is because the SXSW Interactive crowd has the power to change things now — while we’re waiting for policy and law to catch up with his leaked revelations, the geeks can get to work fixing things now. The simplest thing to do, he said, would be to encrypt everything we do, everywhere — using end-to-end encryption, where the two communicating individuals are the only ones with the key. Currently we use key escrow encryption, which means the corporations who give us our Internet services can unlock the whole data storehouse for the state at any time.

If you have to go to the command line, people aren’t going to use it. –Edward Snowden at SXSW

Widespread use of secure encryption would make mass surveillance prohibitively expensive for the state. The problem we have now — as Soghoian pointed out — is the so called Greenwald Test, named for the reporter’s initial inability to use PGP encryption. The tools we have available are either polished and insecure — like Gmail or Facebook — or almost impenetrable to the average user, like Tor. “I want the next Twitter or WhatsApp to use end-to-end encryption.” The problem is that this also requires building new profit models — free services depend on advertising revenue, and opening up user content and data to advertisers also opens them up to attack by governments.

Of course, Edward Snowden also included harsh words for the US shadow government in his talk. How can people like Keith Alexander say Edward Snowden has damaged online national security, when their surveillance has done nearly irreparable harm to the trust our citizens and the people of the world have for US Internet services? In response to an audience question, he told us that policy and law would not change until there is true accountability for the intelligence community — nothing will change as long as people like James Clapper can lie with impunity.

In this sense, Snowden’s leaks have already made every citizen worldwide safer, the panelists emphasized, by increasing awareness and pressuring corporations to take small but important steps like enabling SSL for every user.

MORE: My #SXSnowden Tweets, compiled by @elektrosoundwav.

UPDATE: Read this article in Turkish, courtesy of Bigumigu..

Photo by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.