SXSW: Snowden Speech Has Conference Buzzing, Congressman Stewing

Mar 10, 2014
Originally published on March 10, 2014 7:59 am

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will speak via videoconference to the attendees of South by Southwest Interactive later this morning, and you can bet a much wider audience than just those here in Austin will be watching.

Snowden will be speaking from Russia, which is still offering him asylum as he faces felony charges of espionage here in the U.S. The man behind leaks that revealed U.S. surveillance tactics and scope is expected to talk about the impact of that surveillance on the technology community. He's also expected to call for technologists to build better tools with user privacy in mind.

Not everyone thinks Snowden has the authority to speak on this topic. U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote an open letter to conference organizers on Friday calling Snowden a traitor and demanding that they rescind their invitation to the former contractor. Pompeo wrote that Snowden's "only apparent qualification ... is his willingness to steal from his own government and then flee to that beacon of First Amendment freedoms, the Russia of Vladimir Putin." SXSW hasn't responded.

Despite the objections of some U.S. leaders, the long lines Saturday for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's videoconference on similar topics indicate Snowden's appearance will draw monster crowds. Conference organizers will have a handful of spillover rooms set up for viewing the talk from outside the main venue, and the nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune will be livestreaming the Q & A session for anyone with an Internet connection.

The SXSW festival has long offered a sprawling range of topics. But this year it's taken a harder-edged programming turn to online privacy and surveillance implications. The conversations come at a moment when social media have driven Americans to willingly share more data about ourselves than ever before, and the digitally savvy are more skilled than ever in using that data for various purposes.

"[Privacy's] a big focus at the 2014 event, as well it should be," said SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest. "It's something I think impacts all of us given how much social is now just a part of our lives. It's essentially woven into everything we do."

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Later this morning from Russia, former American National Security contractor Edward Snowden will be speaking to an audience that's gathered in Austin, Texas for South by Southwest.

Now you might know that as a big music festival, but this is the opening week and it's all about technology and film. In fact, the interactive portion is jokingly called Spring Break for Tech Geeks.

Along with showcasing tech gadgets, concerts, movies, the festival is taking hard look at some consequences of our digital lives: surveillance and threats to privacy.

NPR's Elise Hu is in Austin for South by Southwest and she joins us for a preview. Elise, good morning.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So I've always known South by Southwest as introducing new bands to us. And I know Twitter was introduced there in 2007. But privacy and surveillance, that's really becoming a big part of it.

HU: That's right. And, of course, technology and privacy issues have always gone hand in hand, but this year's emphasis is driven in part by just the glut of information we share digitally these days - a lot of it willingly, through social media. But also this growing knowledge - partly made possible by Snowden's leaks - of how our data get into the hands of government. So there still is the typical marketing and outdoor parties and promotions that go on at South by, but this is a technologically-savvy crowd here in Austin. So it makes a lot of sense, given what we've learned, that the implications of what Snowden revealed would be discussed here.

GREENE: Not just the implications, but people hearing from Snowden himself. Any idea what he's expected to say?

HU: Well, his lawyers at ACLU, who are doing some of the questioning during the chat, say he's likely to focus on the impact of the NSA spying on the tech community specifically, and maybe offer some ideas about how technologists can build better tools to protect user privacy.

GREENE: So you said video chat. I mean I know the festival is saying this is Snowden's first conversation in front of an audience since all of his leaks made news, but he's basically Skyping it? Is that what's happening?

HU: That's right. Russia is still giving Snowden asylum right now. He is there since he's facing felony charges of espionage here in the States. And audience members will get a chance to ask him questions and for those who want to watch, the conversation will be live streamed online. And you can bet American intelligence and military leaders will be really closely watching what he has to say. They are assuming that Snowden being in Russia is a real risk to national security and what's on his hard drive could get into the hands of Russians.

GREENE: Yeah. That obviously is a very big concern for a lot of people in the U.S. government, we should say. So, you know, before he actually agreed to appear - I mean I know he's going to make a lot of news, but online privacy was really seemed to be the theme dominating this festival that's been going.

HU: That's right. It's happening in big halls and the smaller conference rooms. Snowden is just one of the many appearances on this privacy topic. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange video chatted on Saturday and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman, who both reported on both these topics are also speaking at South By. I spoke with interactive festival director, Hugh Forrest, and he said because we're sharing so much of our information through mobile devices and social networks, these topics are actually important for all of us to be thinking through.

HUGH FORREST: It's big focus at the 2014 event. As well it should be. I mean it's something that impacts this crowd very significantly, and it's something that I think impacts all of us, given how much social is now just a part of our lives. It's essentially woven into everything we do.

HU: So David, there's still a lot of South by Southwest shenanigans. The startup launches and the parties. Justin Bieber actually showed up in the wee hours of this morning, giving a surprise concert. But when it comes to the programming of the conversations, a much more serious turn.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Elise Hu is in Austin. Elise thanks a lot.

HU: Thank you.

GREENE: And you can read her dispatches from South by Southwest on our tech blog, ALL TECH CONSIDERED. That's @ This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.