If you want better privacy and security, you’d better pay for it instead of relying on ad-financed search, social media and other online companies most of us use, said a SXSW Interactive Conference panel featuring Edward Snowden, the former intelligence analyst making his first public video appearance since he blew the whistle on massive U.S. government surveillance. Snowden, still living in an undisclosed Russian location while he seeks asylum, took part in the panel long distance by way of a Google+ Hangout chat room. The irony of using such a free service while criticizing Google’s data security was not lost on Snowden or the ACLU specialists who joined him on the panel. The event has been criticized by politicians including Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He wrote a letter to SXSW last week urging the fest to uninvite Snowden, saying his inclusion rewarded him and “undermines the very fairness and freedom that SXSW and the ACLU purport to foster.” The appearance went off without a hitch.
Snowden — perhaps predictably for a long-time computer specialist — focused his remarks today on the technical and legal tools that could protect an average user from mass surveillance. Snowden said putting those protections in place, both in how government oversight works and in how we use our favorite online services, is essential to the Internet’s long-term viability. “This is a global issue,” Snowden said. “(The U.S. mass-surveillance efforts are) setting fire to the future of the Internet. And the people in this room now, you’re all the firefighters. Changes in technical standards can make mass surveillance more expensive and less practical.”
But it was ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian who injected a practical point into the conversation. He said if you’re getting free services from big online companies to watch video, chat with friends, share images and ideas or search for information, your information is vulnerable. The company providing that free service has to look at your data, because it makes money by targeting advertising to you based on that data. And if the company can look at your data, so can others, such as governments and criminals that hack into those companies. “It’s hard for these companies to go (to more secure) end-to-end (encryption) because it conflicts with their business models,” Soghoian said. “The tools we use to browse the Web are made by advertising companies. This makes the NSA’s job (of mass data gathering) a lot easier. Advertising companies aren’t going to make our information more secure by default.”
Snowden and Soghoian said several big online companies — including Google, Yahoo!, Apple and Facebook — have made substantive changes in their basic security offerings and settings since Snowden’s revelations first became public eight months ago. But those changes aren’t enough to completely protect information. The solution, Soghoian said: pay for more secure tools. “Consumers need to rethink their relationship with many of the companies they’re doing business with,” he said. “If you want a secure service, you’re going to have to pay for it. You need to pay something so the company has a sustainable business model that doesn’t depend on (collecting and monetizing your data).”
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