MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden addressed a large American audience today. He spoke through a video link from Russia where he was given temporary asylum after he leaked thousands of classified NSA documents. The crowd was a friendly one at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Snowden took some questions and he said technology companies can do more to prevent sweeping surveillance by the U.S. government.
As NPR's Steve Henn reports, the event was moderated by Snowden's attorney.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The purpose of the event was for the American Civil Liberties Union and Edward Snowden to convince entrepreneurs at South by Southwest to take privacy and security seriously. Snowden, speaking on a streaming Internet connection routed through proxy-servers based across the world, told the crowd that the NSA and other spy agencies...
EDWARD SNOWDEN: This setting fire is the future of the Internet. And the people who are in this room now, you guys are all the firefighters. And we need you to help us fix this.
HENN: Snowden - who is apparently a Harry Potter fan - told the assembled technologists in Austin that they should start building end-to-end encryption into all their products. He called it the defense against the dark arts of mass surveillance.
Although this was the first time Snowden has ever taken questions from the public, he didn't face very many tough ones. He wasn't asked if the approximately 1.7 million documents he allegedly took from the NSA's data center included military plans. However, his legal advisor, Ben Wizner, from the ACLU, did ask Snowden why he was so confident the data he took is still secure.
SNOWDEN: The Unites States government has assembled a massive investigation team into me personally, into my work with the journalists, and they still have no idea what documents were provided to the journalists what they have, what they don't have, because encryption works.
HENN: Breaking into an encrypted hard drive is a little bit like playing the lottery. It's a guessing game with the odds stacked against you. There are trillions and trillions of possibilities and just one right answer. But guessing the right answer isn't the only way to get in. You can also steal the encryption keys.
And because Edward Snowden has asylum in Russia, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is not at all confident that military secrets Snowden may have taken are safe from Russian intelligence.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN: I mean you have to that if they don't have access to it that they are going to try to get access to it. So - and that would be very serious.
HENN: General Flynn told NPR's MORNING EDITION last week that the information could include military war plans and technical information, including how the U.S. counters roadside bombs.
FLYNN: I think if I am concerned about anything, I am concerned about defense capabilities and does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries, in this case, you know, of course, Russia.
HENN: Snowden seemed to respond today saying he had taken extraordinary steps to keep his encryption keys safe.
SNOWDEN: If suddenly the Chinese government knew (unintelligible) the NSA was doing, we would notice the changes.
HENN: But many in the defense intelligence community say they have to assume the worst. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.