NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden doesn’t yet know whether he’ll be spending the next year in a U.S. prison or an undisclosed location in Russia. Nevertheless, Snowden hopes to work on anti-surveillance technologies in the future.
During a nearly 90-minute discussion at the Hackers on Planet Earth Conference (HOPE) on Saturday, in which Snowden participated via Google Hangouts, the whistle blower said he wants to work on tools that help people better protect their privacy.
“I think we the people—you the people, you in this room right now, have both the means and the capability to help build a better future by encoding our rights into the programs and protocols upon which we rely every day,” Snowden said. “And that’s what a lot of my future work is going to be involved in, and I hope you’ll join me.”
Snowden didn’t specify what shape his work would take: Whether he would be involved with producing code for new encryption and privacy-protecting technologies, or whether he would focus on promoting tools already under development for the average user. Nevertheless, he had some definite ideas about what kind of tools were needed to protect an individual’s privacy online.
“Generally, when I talk about this I say encryption. I say encryption, encryption, encryption,” Snowden said. “Because it’s an important first step that denies the government access to anything more typically than a suspicion, which is drawn from association [metadata].”
Snowden then went on to reiterate that protecting privacy doesn’t end but only starts with encryption. That’s because encryption generally doesn’t protect metadata from prying eyes. Email metadata, for example, could include the sender’s location, the sender and recipient’s email address, the recipient’s location, the email’s subject line, the time the email was sent, and, over time, the frequency and basic gist of two or more people’s communication.
All of that information can help investigators paint a detailed picture of an individual and who they associate with—even if all messages back and forth are encrypted.
Towards the end of his call for action Snowden also said that the user experience for encryption tools needs to drastically improve, pointing a finger at tools like GPG (Gnu Privacy Guard), a tool based on OpenPGP, which is difficult to get working. “It’s damn near unusable,” Snowden said.
There are already some projects at work on the problems that Snowden pointed out. Lavabit founder Ladar Levison, for example, is at work on Dark Mail, an email protocol that aims to obscure email metadata. Other email projects such as the browser plug-in Mailvelope and the crowdsourced Mailpile project that is currently in Alpha mode are focused on making encryption easier.
Snowden has some very clear ideas of the tools that are needed, and would be a strong spokesperson for getting people onboard with user-friendly privacy tools. However, with Snowden’s extended asylum request in Russia still pending, his chance to help create a more privacy-friendly future is far from certain.