PublishedMarch 16, 2015

Breakfast with Edward Snowden

Austin — I wasn’t expecting it. Dinner with the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny (Prime Minister). After dinner drinks with Hulk Hogan. Breakfast the next morning with Edward Snowden. Not dining companions I was expecting.

The unifying factor for this unlikely combination: The SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

Hulk Hogan’s session on content was fascinating and that Enda Kenny did a great job attracting technology companies to Ireland. But the biggest draw, for me, was Edward Snowden.

A small group snuck into the convention centre early in the morning for a video conference session organised by the American Civil Liberties Union. Snowden wasn’t there in person, but a black shirted figure, against a black background, on a TV screen from somewhere in Russia. This was the first time I had come face to face (so to speak) with the man who changed so much in global politics and the way we think of our digital lives.

How was he, I hear you say? Normal, is the answer. When speaking his delivery was calm, measured, knowledgeable. He talked in a thoughtful manner when answering the questions we threw at him. He did not seem like a man under stress.

But this is a policy blog, so you didn’t come for gossip on personality. You want to know what he said.

In short, Snowden thinks that governments won’t reform surveillance practices in a meaningful way and that it’s up to technology companies to find solutions. Not only that, but talk by democratic governments of requiring ‘backdoors’ will mean that autocratic regimes will jump on the legitimation this provides.

Technological solutions can ‘raise the cost’ of accessing communications meaning that surveillance agencies concentrate on important targets rather than everything Snowden pointed out. This begins with top technology companies pooling resources to research vulnerabilities, he believes. Disguising VPN traffic so that it doesn’t look like VPN traffic will also mean that governments can’t block such traffic without damaging their economies by risking blocking banking transactions.

As a former spy, he doesn’t think that spying is wrong. Precise, targeted spying makes sense in his view; its the bulk collection of data he sees as worrying and ineffective.

By the end of a fascinating, and often technical session, what everyone wanted to know was: would he do it again and when is he going home? Yes, was the answer to the first. I don’t know the answer to the second: it’s a political not a legal issue.

As for Enda Kenny and Hulk Hogan, well they were both on the same plane as me: the Hulk in business class and the Taoiseach in economy. We didn’t dine together; we didn’t drink together, but I was closer to them than to Snowden.

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