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Snowden: NSA ‘setting fire to Internet’

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Former NSA contractor and intelligence analyst Edward Snowden said Monday that his one-time employer was essentially “setting fire to the future of the Internet” by conducting its mass surveillance programs.

Snowden, who stole a trove of top secret documents and has been slowly leaking them to select media outlets for months, said via satellite to a panel at the annual South by Southwest conference that attendees should battle back against such programs, and that the U.S. was not the only country targeted.

“The NSA, the sort of global mass surveillance that’s occurring in all of these countries, not just the U.S. — and it’s important to remember that this is a global issue — they’re setting fire to the future of the Internet,” Snowden said, positioned in front of a green-screen display of the U.S. Constitution. “And the people who are in this room now — you guys are all the firefighters. And we need you to help us fix it.”

In addition, Snowden talked about the challenges of protecting liberty and constitutional rights like the Fourth Amendment’s privacy provisions, while the government was still necessarily engaged in intelligence-gathering.

“The primary challenge that mass surveillance faces from any agency, any government in the world is not just, how do you collect the communications as they cross the wires as they sort of find their way to the global network, but how do you interpret them, how do you understand them, how do you [inaudible] them back out and penalize them?” he said.

His suggestion was to implement end-to-end encryption, a process which would limit communications just to parties exchanging information.

“And the result of that is a more constitutional, more [inaudible] sort of intelligence-gathering model, law-enforcement model,” Snowden said. “Where, if they want to gather somebody’s communications, they have to target them specifically. They can’t just target everybody all the time.”

In his satellite conversation with the American Civil Liberties Union's Christopher Soghoian and Ben Wizner, he blamed the NSA for harming national security, not his leaks.

“More than anything, there are two officials who have harmed our Internet security and national security," Snowden said. "Those two officials are Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander,” the former director of the NSA and CIA, and the current NSA chief, respectively.

“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,” he said.

He also said Congress had failed in its oversight role, adding that “we need a watchdog that watches Congress.”

The conference was held in Austin, Texas.