Edward Snowden isn’t ready to come back to the U.S. in person yet, but on Monday, he will be here virtually. The NSA whistleblower will be on a South by Southwest panel with his lawyer, Ben Wizner, and ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian. Every news network in the world is salivating for a one-on-one interview with Snowden, but he instead chose to talk to a room full of technophiles in Austin.
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Ben Wizner, who is also the director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said in an interview on Sunday that SXSW was an appealing venue for Snowden’s first appearance because “it brings together a lot of young people who are passionate about technology and who know a lot about technology.” A Kansas congressman displeased by the decision wrote an open letter to SXSW asking them to kill the panel, saying that allowing Snowden to speak “encourages lawlessness.”
“I appreciate his interest in SXSW, but I’ve never uninvited a speaker, and so we wouldn’t do this with Snowden. Our goal here is to be an open platform. I’d love to have the NSA giving a lecture,” says Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, who expressed some concerns about the possibility of the video feed being taken down or interfered with on Monday. “I hope it goes off flawlessly because I think it’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done, in terms of political and cultural relevance. It’s a big deal. . Snowden is going to urge this crowd of innovators to build better encryption into the next generation of [technology]. I’m proud and excited that Snowden wanted to get this message out at SXSW.”
Snowden is not the only “exile” to appear virtually at SXSW this year. Glenn Greenwald is also beaming in Monday, and Julian Assange Skyped in on Saturday. In case there are any technological difficulties on Monday, Wizner says that he, Soghoian and Snowden have already taped a video chat that can be played if there are problems contacting Snowden.
“We decided it was time for him to start speaking a little bit more and reintroducing himself,” says Wizner. “This is the way exile can be mitigated. He may not be able to be here in person but his voice can be here.”
Wizner says that the documents handed over by Snowden to journalists have sparked two different debates: one about law and policy and what Congress should do, and another among the tech community about the way their security has been compromised by intelligence agencies, with the weakening of encryption standards and finding weaknesses in tech giants’ data centers to suck up information.
“The tech community, particularly people worried about security, has been radicalized by these disclosures. They now see that their threat model needs to include the NSA as an adversary if they are going to protect their systems,” says Wizner. “We were hoping that here we could have a more elevated conversation about the technology side. What does the technology community need to know? How should they respond? Is it a lost cause or not? Are there things we can do at the technological level that will not require us to wait for dysfunctional legislatures to fix the problem for us?”
“I think this is a community that will welcome this chance to have a conversation with Ed Snowden,” continues Wizner. “Ed can still do the Oprah interview one day if that’s what he wants to do. But we’re not here to talk about his personal life, or what he does every day, or what any network journalist would have to ask. We’re here to talk about the issues. It’s a call to arms.”
I asked Wizner if he’s concerned about the public broadcast compromising Snowden’s security, say if it’s tracked back to his current location.
“It turns out that Ed Snowden is awfully good at security. This is one of those situations where I have to trust him to know what’s secure or not, and what level of risk he wants to take on,” says Wizner. “This isn’t somebody who wants to dial his risk level to 0. If that’s what he wanted to do, he’d be in Hawaii not in Moscow. This is someone who wanted to launch a global debate and be part of that conversation.”
Those who aren’t in Austin can watch the panel live on the Texas Tribune website at 11 a.m. CST on Monday.