Edward Snowden, speaking via teleconference at the South by Southwest Interactive festival

Edward Snowden, speaking via teleconference at the South by Southwest Interactive festival Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

At SXSW, Snowden Calls for More Oversight of Congress

NSA leaker Edward Snowden appeared from Russia through a live video stream at South By Southwest. By Dustin Volz

America's most high-profile fugitive visited one of the country's most popular entertainment festivals in Texas on Monday, drawing thunderous applause from a crowded room filled with his adoring fans.

Edward Snowden, appearing from Russia through a live video stream, told attendees of the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin that Congress had fundamentally failed to do its job as an overseer of the government's bulk surveillance programs, declaring that "we need a watchdog that watches Congress."

The former National Security Agency contractor, in a conversation with the American Civil Liberties Union's Christopher Soghoian and Ben Wizner, also charged the current and most recent chief of the NSA as the two people most responsible for jeopardizing the country's national security due to their preference for aggressive collection of data rather than protection of it after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"More than anything, there are two officials who have harmed our Internet security and national security," Snowden said, his image backdropped by an enlarged copy of the U.S. Constitution. "Those two officials are Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander."

He added: "When you are the one country that has a vault that is more full than anyone else's, it doesn't make any sense to be attacking all day and never defending your vault. And it makes even less sense when you're setting the standards for vaults worldwide and leaving a huge back door open."

Snowden also told SXSW that the technology community can push for changes to the way Internet data is collected and stored even in the absence of action from Capitol Hill, specifically citing the need for end-to-end encryption of data, which he likened to a "defense against the dark arts for the digital realm."

"The people who are in the room in Austin right now are the folks who can really fix things … even when Congress hasn't yet gotten to the point to protect our freedoms," Snowden said. "There's a policy response that needs to occur but there's also technology response that needs to occur."

Snowden and Soghoian also briefly lauded Silicon Valley tech firms for embracing tighter encryption standards in the past year, despite worries that it might not mesh with their business model of sharing data with advertisers. But more needs to be done, Snowden said, offering a model where customers could pay a small fee for encrypted data assurances as a possibility.

"It's not that you can't collect any data, it's that you should only collect data and hold it enough for the operation of the business," Snowden said. "Whether you're Google or Facebook, you can do these things in a responsible way" while protecting customer information.

Snowden, 30, became an overnight household name in June 2013, when his leaks revealing intimate details of the NSA's secret phone and Internet surveillance programs first began to emerge in major publications around the world. A seemingly endless deluge of revelations continued throughout the year, culminating in all three branches of U.S. government discussing surveillance reform, and several foreign heads of state expressing a loss of trust in President Obama's administration.

But if 2013 found Snowden trotting around the globe in search of refuge from U.S. authorities, 2014 has been a year of increased willingness to step into the limelight. January found him participating in an online question-and-answer discussion and appointed to the board of directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Last month, Snowden was elected to serve as a representative for more than 20,000 at the University of Glasgow.

Not everyone was thrilled to see Snowden speaking at SXSW. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., last week sent a letter to SXSW organizers urging them to nix Snowden's appearance, saying it would "stamp the imprimatur of your fine organization on a man who ill deserves such accolades." Wizner took a few moments at the start of the panel to lambast Pompeo's letter.

The fugitive, who downloaded some 1.7 million top-secret NSA documents when employed in Hawaii by government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, was stationed in Hong Kong when the first Snowden files hit the Internet. He fled to Russia, where he currently remains, after an international brouhaha that ended with him earning temporary asylum there.

On Saturday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke, also via video, at the conference and said the NSA "has grown to be a rogue agency."

"It has grown to be unfettered … the ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there within a few years," Assange said from the confines of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been—beyond the reach of British authorities—since 2012.