Assange and Snowden: Privacy, Security, and the State at SXSW

DSC03193Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, masters of the modern-day art of revealing state secrets, appeared by way of video chat during SXSW. Assange spoke on Saturday from the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom, while Edward Snowden, still holed up in Russia, joined a panel today using Google Hangouts (the irony of which was not lost on anyone there).

Assange spoke at length about his personal experiences with WikiLeaks and his work in revealing state secrets that predated the now infamous organization. At the heart of what Assange talked about, though, was what he described as a crossroads in the continued intertwining of the Internet and society. As Assange and Snowden’s work has made clear, the breadth and depth of government surveillance, regardless of how you feel about it, is breathtaking. It’s all-encompassing – totalitarian, as Assange puts it. He downplayed the dictatorship imagery usually associated with totalitarianism, stressing that he’s referring to the fact that it is increasingly impossible to live outside of the state structure (someone, somewhere always knows what you’re doing, and good luck traveling outside of the country without the government knowing). It’s arguable that the point is overstated – this was true to a great extent before the Internet. What’s not overstated is that government monitoring of citizens is now easier and more detailed than ever before.

But, Assange sees the present as a crossroads, not part of a fatalistic descent into a sort of science fiction dystopia. While it is easier for the government to spy on its citizens, the Internet has also made it easier for individual people to band together and make demands of the state. He talked about the work that many reporters worldwide have done in taking government spying to task, often with the consequence of needing to leave their home countries to do so. The main thrust was that people need to continue to take it upon themselves to fight for representation, because the government isn’t going to slow spying programs down by itself.

While Assange talked about the broader issue of government spying and the role that the state, the individual, and big corporations like Google play, the panel featuring Snowden was a little more pointed. Snowden discussed Internet security and encryption at length. The argument went that encryption needs to be used more, made simpler and easier to understand for the average person, and come standard in online services, the effect being that the kind of mass, fishnet surveillance the government currently engages in is virtually impossible if everything is encrypted – too much in the way of resources would be required. Snowden argued that this would force governments to engage in targeted spying against identified threats, presumably with warrants attached, leaving out most citizens. He also revealed the reason why he chose SXSW to speak – it’s the technology sector that needs to start implementing these security features in their services, something that has often taken a backseat during startup development.

The most interesting part, for both speakers, was how reasoned and measured they were. It sounds silly to say that, but it’s important to remember – with all the invective and lionizing swirling around these two guys, it’s easy to forget to listen to what they actually have to say. Ultimately, they’re just a couple of average guys who perceived a problem and did something about it. Neither one is especially radical – Snowden wants more Internet security to discourage mass surveillance, and Assange wants a state that is actually accountable to the people. Both seem to agree that government surveillance is necessary, because threats do exist and because the messy, anarchic international state system demands it. They’re neither heroes nor villains, but they do have some great points to make about the society we live in today.

Whether you agree with their methods and arguments or not, both have some ideas worth thinking about. Technical difficulties make things, well, difficult – Assange‘s audio dropped off at one point, and Snowden sounds garbled. Problems were expected, which made someone trot out the old seven proxies joke before the Snowden panel got underway. But, if you have some time and an ear patient enough to bear with the audio problems, both talks are worth it.