Arguably the largest festival of its kind in the world, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival is a set of three conferences – interactive, music, and film – held every spring in Austin, Texas. SXSW is considered the “signature event” of Austin, and it is the highest revenue producing event for the Austin economy. Since its inception in 1987, SXSW has only grown in size and reputation.


This year’s SXSW Interactive conference began on March 7 and ends today, March 11. The Interactive portion of the event is focused on emerging technology and offers a hub for networking, alongside a variety of events, including a trade show, influential speakers, parties, and a startup accelerator competition. In more recent years, the event has shifted its focus to mobile technologies.


Previous notable moments at the Interactive conference include Twitter gaining momentum and generating buzz at the conference in 2007 (though some confuse this as the social media giant’s launch), a 2008 interview with Mark Zuckerberg that received critical reception, and the launch of the app Foursquare in 2009.


Screen capture from the interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras on June 6, 2013. (Wikipedia)

Screen capture from the interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras on June 6, 2013. (Wikipedia)

The event that could not be missed was held on Monday, March 10, and featured a virtual conversation with Edward Snowden regarding national security versus information privacy. Snowden is a former Central Intelligence Agency employee and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, and he is known for leaking thousands of classified documents to multiple media outlets. He is currently living in Russia on a temporary one-year asylum after being charged in 2013 with espionage and theft of government property. Some hail him a hero, while others cry for the death of a traitor.


Snowden’s discussion was moderated by Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) principal technologist, and Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project and Snowden’s legal advisor. The initial SXSW description for the event outlined that the conversation would discuss the NSA’s breach of personal privacy via technological resources, and the ways in which technology can help protect us from mass surveillance. The conversation heavily revolved around encryption and the importance of maintaining personal privacy.


Snowden took questions both from the moderators and from Twitter. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web over 25 years ago, asked Snowden the first question, inquiring what he would change about the U.S. surveillance system. Snowden replied, “we need a watchdog that watches Congress because if we’re not informed, we can’t consent to these [government] policies.”


With more and more information being readily available on the internet and with the push for the world to be socially connected, it is becoming increasingly easier for government surveillance to be conducted on individuals using the same information provided on Facebook profiles and other outlets. Much of the information put out there is sold to advertisers and other private companies, and Snowden argues that the difference between this and the invasion of privacy by the government is that “the government has the ability to deprive you of rights. They can jail you.”


While Snowden answered some personal questions tactfully, he kept the conversation to encryption and urged everyone, not just tech-savvy folks with the know-how to use encryption and firewalls, to set up protections for themselves. He called upon developers to create more secure networks for privacy measures for users. “South by Southwest and the tech community, the people in the room in Austin, they’re the folks who can fix this,” Snowden said.


Snowden says he has no regrets regarding the leak of government documents. “Would I do it again? Absolutely,” he said. “I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale. The interpretation of the Fourth Amendment had been changed … the interpretation of the Constitution had been changed in secret from no unreasonable search and seizure to, ‘hey, any seizure is fine, just don’t search it.’ And that’s something the public ought to know,” said Snowden.


Have you ever attended a SXSW event? What are your thoughts on government surveillance? What is maintaining public safety, and what is a violation of privacy? Let’s talk here, or you can always find me on Twitter @TiffaniJPurdy.