With the Constitution's "We the People" as a backdrop, Edward Snowden spoke at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, via video conference on Monday about the struggle Americans face maintaining their rights and privacy in a world increasingly dependent on digital interconnection.
Case in point: The former security contractor responsible for leaking the ways the National Security Agency snoops on big Web companies addressed the crowd using a Google Hangout.
More than half a year after his leaks and exile to Russia, Snowden, along with American Civil Liberties Union chief technologist Chris Soghoian and attorney Ben Wizner, discussed the importance of end-to-end encryption, reining in government surveillance, congressional powers and how tech companies must regain consumer trust when it comes to the storage of personal information.
Some of what he said was sound bites -- "I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw the Constitution was violated on a massive scale" -- but he mostly reinforced the technical and legal points he has made since the Guardian newspaper revealed his identity.
Snowden once appeared a likely figurehead for the burgeoning online privacy movement, but he has said that he never wanted the spotlight. Rather, he claims he intended for his leaks to kick-start a discussion about government overreach.
And for the most part, he's done that. The conversation has bubbled to the highest levels of government, with the Obama administration promising changes to the surveillance program.
That conversation is far from over, but it's unclear if it can remain in the forefront of American discourse without a public face.
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU have led the charge for accountability and oversight in the digital realm, but lack a central voice. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's position has always been that the focus should be on the documents, not the messenger.
In the niche digital privacy community, there are loud voices, but none are household names - not even Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who held a similar talk at South by Southwest Interactive. He claimed the reason the NSA had lost so much ground in the national dialogue about its surveillance programs was because the agency was simply unprepared for a public relations battle.
Now the agency has had time to regroup and is learning to spin the issues in its favor.
Digital-rights activists have wondered whether a catastrophic privacy violation that clearly threatened the American way of life - a "Pearl Harbor" moment - would make the general public truly care. But it's hard to argue that Snowden's revelations have been that moment. All in all, NSA spying feels a little creepy, but most law-abiding folks accept it as a trade-off for safety.
For comparison, a concurrent South by Southwest talk in another hall with Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's "Girls," drew comparable attention to Snowden's.
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