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Vulnerabilities / Threats

3/10/2014
02:29 PM
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Snowden: Encryption Is 'Defense Against The Dark Arts'

NSA whistleblower fields questions via live video feed at South by Southwest panel today, says he would definitely leak the surveillance documents all over again

In front of the backdrop of an enlarged copy of Article I of the U.S. Constitution, Edward Snowden via a Google Hangout video feed today said encryption works and represents "the defense against the dark arts in the digital realm," but needs improvement.

(Photo credit: ACLU and South by Southwest)(Photo credit: ACLU and South by Southwest)

Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who accessed and leaked reams of classified documents detailing NSA surveillance programs, answered questions as part of a panel hosted by American Civil Liberties Union executives at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

"Encryption does work. It's the defense against the dark arts in the digital realm," he said. He also noted that the federal government still does not know which NSA documents he took from the agency "because encryption works."

Snowden, who was connected to the panel digitally via multiple proxies to protect his whereabouts in Russia, also called for academia to come up with solutions to strengthen encryption now that random number generator algorithms are reportedly being compromised.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project as well as Snowden's legal adviser, hosted the panel, which included Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist of the ACLU. In reference to allegations that the NSA had undue influences on an encryption algorithm standard, Soghoian said the news of the NSA allegedly subverting a random number generation algorithm has "radicalized" some member of the encryption community who "feel they were lied to" and can make changes to improve encryption.

Snowden was asked by Wizner whether he felt the controversial NSA leaks he executed were worth it in retrospect. "I would do it again," Snowden said, noting that he believes the revelations have benefited the public.

"When I went public, it was not to change government," but rather to shed light on the NSA programs to the public and let them "make decisions on what should be done" about the mass surveillance, he said.

He maintained that the NSA's bulk data collection programs are not effective and would be better focused on targeted surveillance. "I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale," he said.

[Experts piece together clues to paint possible scenarios for how the NSA contractor accessed, downloaded, and leaked secret agency documents on its spying operations. See How Did Snowden Do It?]

Snowden also shared some advice about how citizens can protect their privacy online. Basic steps, he said, include using full disk encryption, network encryption via SSL, browser plug-ins such as NoScript and cookie-blockers, and the Tor anonymization service.

He said he agreed to speak on the South by Southwest panel because he thinks the technical community is the one that can effect change in privacy. "You guys are the firefighters. We need you," he said.

A full recording of the panel is available here from the ACLU.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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