Surveillance, Snowden dominated discussions at a more serious South by Southwest

snowden sxsw

AUSTIN—Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations took center stage at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive, a five-day tech-focused festival best known for helping Twitter and Foursquare burst into the mainstream. Snowden didn’t have any new bombs to drop, but spoke to the South By audience because the festival foregoes major product launches in favor of taking the temperature of tech. This year, the industry is boiling.

The developers, startups, marketers, CEOs, and media types who attend SXSW share the same suspicions about surveillance and concerns about online privacy that average folks feel, but unlike you and I, creators of apps and services have the power to ease those fears.

“The people who are in this room now: We need you to help us fix this,” Snowden said during a live-streamed interview from his Russian refuge.

assange sxsw

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also spoke to the SXSW audience from his own refuge at the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Snowden’s talk was the pinnacle of a series of high-profile festival interviews focused on individual privacy in the Internet age. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, reporter Glenn Greenwald, journalist Bart Gellman, and even Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt spoke at length about how governments and corporations collect and use our personal data in ways we don’t know about.

Expect more revelations to come from Snowden’s leaks.

“Many of the most shocking and significant stories haven’t been reported yet,” Greenwald said during his Monday video-conference, because those stories are complex and require more time to report.

On Wednesday, Greenwald and colleague Ryan Gallagher reported that the NSA is working to infect millions of computers with malware that would make spying on targets easier.

Finding solutions at SXSW

The security talk was heavy on the doom and gloom, but there’s no need to buy a yurt and flee into the wilderness just yet. Even Snowden believes it’s possible to protect yourself from indiscriminate hacking and tracking—though if the government has you in its crosshairs, you’re probably screwed.

Snowden recommended Tor’s anonymity software, which the NSA has tried and largely failed to penetrate, and browser plug-ins like NoScript and Ghostery, which had a slot on the SXSW show floor to demo the no-tracking tool.

Ghostery’s reps said the extension was getting a lot of attention since being name-checked in Snowden’s talk, and even before that as network privacy has become a hot topic post-PRISM.

ghostery ios

Ghostery's browser plug-in is also available on mobile.

Ghostery shows you which third-party trackers are watching you on every tab you have open. With a database of 1894 trackers and counting, it can sniff out social network widgets, ads, invisible pixels, and more. Once you install the extension in your browser (Ghostery supports Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Internet Explorer, plus mobile apps for Android and iOS), you just click the ghost icon to see which companies are tracking you, exactly what data they’re collecting, and what they’re passing on—and, of course, you can block them.

Ghostery is free to use, and it doesn’t collect any data of its own, unless you opt in. If you enable the GhostRank feature (off by default), Ghostery can collect anonymous data about the trackers you’re encountering and what sites they appeared on. The company then aggregates that data and sells it back to the site owners themselves, which is helpful for them to see if the trackers they use are slowing down page load times, or worse, passing along user data to even more tracking companies, which might mean the original site needs to update its privacy policy or even stop using the tracker in question.

Free, easy-to-use tools that help the average Internet user lock down security measures are all well and good, but premium privacy products—i.e., ones you have to pay for—could be the next big tech trend if SXSW conversations were any indication.

“If you want a secure online backup service, you are going to have to pay for it,” said American Civil Liberties Union technologist Chris Soghoian, who was interviewed alongside Snowden. “If you want a secure voice or video communications product, you are going to have to pay for it. That doesn’t mean you have to pay thousands of dollars a year, but you have to pay something so that company has a sustainable business model that doesn’t revolve around collecting and monetizing your data.”

That’s the problem: People don’t want to pay to use social networks, search engines, or email, but they also don’t want Facebook and Google to mine their personal information to sell ads. It’s becoming more and more clear that we can’t have it both ways.

From online surveillance to cute cat memes

South By Southwest Interactive offers a snapshot of the state of tech. It was never really a festival where new devices were released or apps are launched, though a few announcements trickle out each year. Samsung chose South By to hype its new streaming music service Milk, and the anonymous sharing app Secret announced new features that may attract users outside of Silicon Valley startups.

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There are still plenty of social apps showing their stuff at SXSW. Secret rolled out new features to coincide with the fest.

Past festivals have played a big role in launching new social apps and services because startups have been laser-focused on sharing over the last 10 years. But the winds are now shifting, and the topic of the day—or of the next 5-10 years—is privacy. SXSW needed to reflect that, and we can expect future festivals to include more emphasis on security and surveillance if those issues continue to dominate our discussions about technology and its role in our lives.

“I would love in 2015 to have someone from the NSA talking about their position,” said festival organizer Hugh Forrest. “What we are is a forum for dialogue and discussion, and while I thought Snowden’s talk was great, we are committed to showing off different viewpoints. If someone from the intelligence world wanted to come down to Austin and explain their position, we would welcome that. It promotes more discussion and debate on the matter.”

That’s not to say sessions on Internet memes and friend-finding apps will ever entirely disappear from the usually lighthearted fest.

“For better for worse, it’s a big enough event that you can make of it what you will,” Forrest said. “You can spend four days every day going to security panels or every day going to sessions about cat videos.”

Variety certainly is the spice of South By Southwest.

TechHive Senior Editor Susie Ochs contributed to this report.

This story, "Surveillance, Snowden dominated discussions at a more serious South by Southwest" was originally published by TechHive.

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