Science, Tech & Environment

Edward Snowden was bigger than a rock star at his SXSW panel today

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Former NSA analyst Edward Snowden speaks to a crowd, via video link, at the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.

Credit:

Steven Davy

We haven’t heard from Edward Snowden in a while. The former NSA contractor does few interviews. But that changed in Austin, Texas, on Monday.

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Snowden joined a panel moderated by the American Civil Liberties Union at the SXSW Interactive Festival. He appeared on a video screen near an image of the constitution — in a packed exhibition hall, the largest at SXSW. The festival also simulcast his talk in several other locations. The crowd welcomed him like a rock star.

“He took over Austin this morning,” says Steven Davy, the web editor for PRI's The World, who saw the presentation.

Snowden was what people talked about between sessions and at the event's after-parties. “It was the whisper in the hallways. You know, Snowden, Snowden,” he says.

The crowd was Snowden's type of people — the hackers, the people working on net neutrality and advocacy — according to Davy. A couple of times, the crowd interrupted him with applause during the session. Snowden even ended the panel like a rocker finishing a set: “Thank you! Thank you Austin!” he said.

Davy says it’s hard to know if there were any dissenters in the crowd. The ACLU lobbed him softball questions, Davy notes, and the ones coming from Twitter didn’t seem to challenge what he did, either.

For example, no one challenged him when he said the NSA missed its chance to prevent the Boston bombings, due to its preoccupation with collecting meta-data.

Snowden sparked some strong reactions when he was asked about the future of the Internet. He says the NSA is setting fire to it — arguing that massive data collection will turn the Internet into a controlled universe where the giant tech companies collude with the NSA in all matters.

Davy says the crowd listened attentively to his cautionary words. It is, after all, a group of people who care deeply about the Internet and its future.