South by Southwest, an annual cultural conference held in Austin, Texas, hosted NSA leaker Edward Snowden as a speaker via video feed on March 10. Snowden focused his discussion on how he believes tech companies can best approach the problem of widespread surveillance and data collection. Since Snowden released thousands of classified NSA documents in 2013, tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple have voiced their disapproval of NSA data collection methods. While legislative reform has failed to move swiftly through Congress, software companies and the computer users can take it upon themselves to help protect Internet security.
Snowden noted several times in his video feed that the encryption technology required to protect information from the NSA already exists, but despite this, the Internet was not secure because websites hold onto user information for too long. To combat this problem, companies should do away with excess information, and consumers should take steps to enhance online security by encrypting their hard drives and using anonymous web browsing systems like Tor.
Over 6,000 sites participated in an online protest against inadequate congressional reform of the NSA call-records program on Feb. 11. The websites, including Reddit and Tumblr, displayed banners across their homepages encouraging users to communicate their support of privacy rights and NSA oversight to their representatives in Congress. The collaborative effort, dubbed “The Day We Fight Back,” showed a grassroots style movement on the part of Internet communities to fight egregious NSA monitoring. This type of public information campaign echoes Snowden’s calls for user protection. Without pressure from the average user it is unlikely that technology companies or Congress will alter their approaches to consumer privacy.
Snowden also raised a valid point about the need for judicial oversight. The FISA Court — the underground court which decides whether intrusions are legal or not — stated in a heavily redacted ruling in 2008 that the extent to which the government can infringe upon our personal data is virtually unchecked. Justice Bruce Selya argued indiscriminately that data collection was not a harmful method of surveillance, saying that “Notwithstanding the parade of horribles trotted out by the petitioner, it has presented no evidence of any actual harm, any egregious risk of error, or any broad potential for abuse in the circumstances of the instant case.” The petitioner in this case was Yahoo.
While the NSA wields immeasurable resources, Snowden was right to point out that tech companies and consumers are not entirely defenseless. Instead of waiting for legislation that might help to restrain NSA surveillance, computer users and emerging and established companies alike should take initiative by installing simple tools to enhance data security.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 11 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at email@example.com.