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Keep Austin Wary: Snowden Streams Warnings To Tech Conference


Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden addressed a large American audience today. He spoke over video from Russia, where he was given temporary asylum after he leaked thousands of classified NSA documents.

The crowd was a friendly one at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Snowden took some questions, and he said technology companies can do more to prevent sweeping surveillance by the U.S. government. As NPR's Steve Henn reports, the event was moderated by Snowden's attorney.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The purpose of the event was for the American Civil Liberties Union and Edward Snowden to convince entrepreneurs at South by Southwest to start taking privacy and security seriously. Snowden, speaking on a streaming Internet connection routed through proxy-servers based across the world, told the crowd that the NSA and other spy agencies...

EDWARD SNOWDEN: They're setting fire to the future of the Internet. And the people who are in this room now, you guys are all the firefighters. And we need you to help us fix this.

HENN: Snowden - who is apparently a Harry Potter fan - told the assembled technologists in Austin that they should start building end-to-end encryption into all of their products. He called it the defense against the dark arts of mass surveillance.

Although this was the first time Snowden has ever taken questions from the public, he didn't face very many tough ones. He wasn't asked if the approximately 1.7 million documents he allegedly took from the NSA's data centers included military plans. However, his legal adviser - Ben Wizner, from the ACLU - did ask Snowden why he was so confident the data he took is still secure.

SNOWDEN: The Unites States government has assembled a massive investigation team into me personally, into my work with the journalists; and they still have no idea what documents were provided to the journalists - what they have, what they don't have - because encryption works.

HENN: Breaking into an encrypted hard drive is a little bit like playing the lottery. It's a guessing game with the odds stacked against you. There are trillions and trillions of possibilities, and just one right answer. But guessing the right answer isn't the only way to get in. You can also steal the encryption keys.

And because Edward Snowden has asylum in Russia, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is not at all confident that military secrets Snowden may have taken are safe from Russian intelligence.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN: I mean, you have to assume that if they don't have access, you have to assume that they are going to try to get access to it. So - and that would be very serious.

HENN: Gen. Flynn told NPR's MORNING EDITION last week that the information could include military war plans and technical information, including how the U.S. counters roadside bombs.

FLYNN: I think if I'm concerned about anything, I'm concerned about defense capabilities, and does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries; in this case, you know, of course, Russia.

HENN: Snowden seemed to respond today, saying he had taken extraordinary steps to keep his encryption keys safe. But many in the defense intelligence community say they have to assume the worst.

Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.