In the Echo Chamber


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Considering the anticipation and controversy prior to Edward Snowden’s SXSW video conference on Monday, it’s likely that anything the whistleblower said would, by default, be emphasized in news headlines and quoted in content.

After the event, his line about the NSA ended up being one of the most quoted: “They’re setting fire to the future of the internet.”

Snowden continued, “The people who are in this room now… you guys are all the firefighters, and we need you to help us fix this.” The crowd to whom Snowden was referring was an audience of technology developers and entrepreneurs.

The main attraction himself obviously wasn’t in the room, but somewhere in Russia, being streamed through several proxies, his face intermittently appearing onscreen.

Moderating the video conference were the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney, and Christopher Soghoian, Principle Technologist and Senior Policy Analyst for the project. Though lots of Snowden’s statements were transcribed and recapitulated throughout the news shortly after, the reception through the proxies and encryption forced Wizner and Soghoian to translate Snowden’s speech, which came through spotty, echoed, and often incomprehensible.

Again, in considering all the raw content from the talk, a number of reporters interpreted the antagonist fire-setting NSA and protagonist firefighting tech crowd sentiment as the most captivating component to present their accounts:

“Edward Snowden tells tech-savvy crowd: Be Internet ‘firefighters’”–LA Times

“Edward Snowden: ‘The NSA set fire to the internet. You are the firefighters’”–The Guardian

“Edward Snowden Urges SXSW Crowd to Thwart NSA With Technology”–Wired

“Snowden: NSA ‘Set Fire’ to Internet Techies are ‘Firefighters,’”–NBC News

Time, however, chose to focus on another topic for a title, using “SXSW: Edward Snowden Has No Regrets About NSA Leaks.”

Regrets or not, Snowden’s status as a public whistleblower on the run is nearly a year old and his revelations continue to disseminate.

But what of the newly empowered ‘firefighters?’ Are individuals in that SXSW audience room–or, more generally, civilians in the technology community–ultimately the ones who bear responsibility to secure our data? Congress has been lagging in proper legislation in Snowden’s eyes to ensure our rights, so other means are necessary.

Past the empowering arson metaphors, when it came down to describing the processes of protecting personal information against third-party interference, Snowden’s talk of actual data safeguarding became a bit esoteric. He spoke of cryptographic tools, encryption algorithms, new UIs, NoScript plugins to block Active X in browsers, the dynamics of TOR, and other software that’s challenging to crack, never mind to understand for the average internet denizen.

It’s sensible that Snowden would delve into specifics during a rare occurrence in front of tech professionals, however, such suggestions didn’t spawn too many media headlines. The NBC News writer chose to emphasize the difficulty by embedding Twitter user rachelsklar’s Tweet about how Snowden “said ‘encrypt’ a lot,” and recommended measures that went over her head.

Tech-literate writers for Venture Beat and PC Magazine took the chance to type up relevant references praising NoScript, clickjacking, desktop OSes, or TOR serving–topics appropriate for tech-literate readers.

The New York Times summarized what Snowden highlighted about the software and anonymity services, but it was through their technology-focused blog, Bits. The same piece interjected Christopher Soghoian’s acknowledgement: “Most people are not going to download some obscure security app” over their familiar tools like Google, Facebook, and Skype.

Wired offered a comprehensive summary of what Snowden was illustrating:

“’End-to-end encryption… makes mass surveillance impossible at the network level,’ he says, and provides a more constitutionally protected model of surveillance, because it forces the government to target the endpoints–the individual users–through hacking, rather than conduct mass collection.”

Perhaps average people who care about data privacy have the ability to learn more about the end-to-end encryption tools and security processes as their civic responsibility–but will they? The push to encourage general knowledge of computer code, never mind cybersecurity, may fall into the great list of what media figures wish everyone could and should do–whether it’s pay more attention to politics, be healthier, better to the community, or whatever undisciplined life lacks.

Snowden said himself that executing encryption is necessary “until our understanding of math and physics changes on a fundamental level.” Those are topics the tech community currently comprehends better.

We’re all invested in society together, and specialists exist for specific needs: a doctor diagnoses, a reporter informs, a teacher educates, and so on. Months after Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s spying efforts, he deemed tech professionals, rather than policy makers, as the segment of our society that should be assigned to make our communications more secure.

Then for those of us who aren’t too techie but care to contribute to the cause, Snowden drew on roles that others can play, calling for “public advocates, public representatives,” and “public oversight.” In terms of policy change, he again alluded his mistrust for Congress, encouraging a prospective watchdog to monitor their actions.