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The News from SXSW: Technology Will Liberate Us! Unless It Enslaves Us First.


AUSTIN — Most years, the subtitle for SXSW Interactive might as well be “Technology is awesome!” The panels, presentations and PR stunts at this increasingly crowded festival often celebrate the possibilities created by chips and bits. But this year the mood is not nearly so cheery.

Yes, I’ve seen more than my quota of optimistic futurism about Big Data, sensors, social media and wearable computing (not to mention implantable and injectable computing) and demos of such creations as a Bluetooth-linked, app-governed toothbrush and phone calls from a plane. But the talks that resonated the most focused on the ways that technology and information have failed us, and vice versa.

Two in particular featured men who not only could not attend SXSW in person, but have no hope of setting foot anywhere in the United States anytime soon: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Assange spoke to a crowd Saturday via Skype from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, the place he’s called home since June 2012, when he fled imminent arrest by British police. (“It’s a bit like prison,” he said of his confined existence before allowing that real prisoners have things much worse.) Assange condemned the NSA’s bulk surveillance as “a militarization of our civilian space” on the Internet and predicted more of the same.

“The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there and arguably will be there in a few years,” he said during a video interview with Benjamin Palmer interrupted by repeated audio dropouts (“People in the audience, if they can hear me, please raise your hands,” Assange asked at one point.) “How is it that the Internet that everyone looked up on as perhaps the greatest tool of human emancipation ever invented had been co-opted to be … the greatest instrument of state surveillance ever seen?”

Monday afternoon, journalist Glenn Greenwald echoed Assange’s phrasing in his own Skype interview, suggesting that the Internet could be “this tool of equalizing … or one of the most oppressive instruments ever known.”

Assange put the blame for that fouling of the Internet’s promise on a lack of accountability and oversight in Washington. “Who really wears the pants in the administration … is it the intelligence agencies or the civilians?”

Monday morning, Snowden made his own virtual appearance at SXSW. Snowden’s Google+ Hangout was tunneled through seven proxy servers to obscure his location somewhere in Moscow, and the video feed could manage only maybe one frame per second and made his voice sound as if he were speaking through a fish tank. His talk mixed technological and policy prescriptions.

Snowden said tech companies need to make encrypted, secure communications not just easy but the default setting. He said that today’s encryption works — “It’s a defense against the dark arts” — but it’s too difficult for the uninitiated to set up. He cited the trouble Greenwald had trying to set up Pretty Good Privacy to communicate securely with him.

“The way we interact with it right now is not good,” Snowden observed in front of a backdrop image of Article I of the Constitution. “If you have to go three menus deep, they’re not going to use it.”

(One of Snowden’s two interlocutors, American Civil Liberties Union technologist Christopher Soghoian, criticized Yahoo for not switching on full-time encryption for all Yahoo Mail users until January.)

“We want secure services that aren’t opt in,” Snowden said, before suggesting that people opt into encrypting their computer storage (easily done in OS X, not so easy in Windows) and their network communication by using Tor relays (not so simple either).

Snowden had a to-do list for Washington as well as Silicon Valley, saying the NSA had gone dangerously astray by elevating offensive information-security operations — for instance, its long-running campaign to weaken security standards — over defensive moves.

“We spent all this money, all this time, hacking into Google and Facebook’s back ends,” the former NSA contractor griped. “What did we get out of it? We got nothing.”

And in Washington, all three branches of government have failed to stop those excesses. “We have intelligence committees that are cheerleading for the NSA,” he said, while the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “is a secret, rubber-stamp court” that “shouldn’t be interpreting the Constitution when only the NSA’s lawyers are making a case.”

But here’s the depressing part that Snowden didn’t mention from his Russian hideout: If you think it’s tough installing an encryption plug-in your mail software or cloaking your browsing through Tor, try updating the firmware for the White House, Congress or the courts.

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