Home > Uncategorized > Snowden Talk to Techies Speaks to Journalists, too

Snowden Talk to Techies Speaks to Journalists, too

-first posted at RJIonline.org on March 10, 2014

Thousands filled three giant venues at South by Southwest Monday morning to hear from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as he joined the conference live from his hiding place in Russia. Snowden’s appearance at SXSW is seen as a coup, billed as Snowden’s first such appearance since he fled the United States. Politicians, like Kansas Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, called on SXSW to cancel the Snowden appearance. The fact it went on as planned shows not only the festival’s backbone to stand up for content it believes is important, but also gives journalists a good opportunity to hear what amounted to a list of story ideas to keep the Snowden and security stories moving forward.

images_snowden1_0Edward Snowden appears via Google+ Hangout at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas


Snowden began his address by recognizing the tech community gathered in Austin, Texas. He praised the group as the people who are working to protect privacy rights even as the government is failing to do so. His talk was tech-heavy, diving quickly into the steps individuals and groups can take now to protect privacy. But buried in all this tech talk was a message for journalists gathered to hear the address.

Snowden’s call to technology innovators also calls on journalists to do a better job going forward covering important security issues. This list isn’t a Monday morning quarterbacking job on what’s already transpired. These topics demand new reporting and new pressure on government and industry to play watchdog on just how both are handling private data. Those reporting initiatives, based on my analysis of Snowden’s notions, are:

— Snowden said sites that collect data should do so with the intent to use the data for a reasonable and manageable period, and then delete it. It should not be stored indefinitely. Journalists have a responsibility to do that story, pushing both private and public agencies that collect data to find out how long they keep it, when they delete it and what criteria they use to determine that storage period.

— There was agreement among the panelists as well as Snowden that there needs to be responsibility at the highest level to prioritize cyber security and hold those in power accountable for poor performance. As journalists, our primary role is to serve as watchdogs against those in power, whether they be government or private interests that hold the power. The Snowden affair highlighted just how little watching the media had done about many of these issues before they broke, leaving much more work to do.

A capacity crowd fills one of the three venues at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.

— Snowden asked that there be a thorough examination of the fruit borne by mass surveillance programs and report to the public whether it works or not. Snowden himself feels the programs do not work because there is a lack of focus to spy on just the suspects instead of everyone, leaving the programs ineffective. This is an easy call to action for journalists: start and keep asking to see proof that surveillance delivers valuable information.

— The talk introduced an idea I had not heard from Snowden before: for a group of trusted public advocates to be an oversight force for security and surveillance operations. This board of known national leaders would have a role similar in my mind to those special commissions called into action after a crisis, like the Tower or Warren commissions. This idea needs a thorough vetting by journalists, checking to see whether such a group could gain meaningful access to information needed and whether anyone would listen to what the group had to say.

— Encryption research is key, Snowden said, to keeping the “dark arts” at bay. He called for a commercial and philosophical commitment to build tomorrow’s encryption efforts and to keep improving what is built. As reporters, we can put those who work on this sort of technology on our beats, checking in regularly and reporting stories on progress and obstacles in the road to better encryption in the future.

— Asked by a Twitter user what anyone can do now to increase personal protections now, Snowden went through a list of steps from full disk encryption to using Tor encryption on personal data. The conversation got a little thick for non-technical types, which tells us as journalists that we need to spend more reporting effort on explaining these steps to people so that they don’t seem so hard to do.

images_snowden2The Snowden event included on-stage participation from the American Civil Liberties Union

— Finally, Snowden warned that too much of government talk is about the security and safety of the state, rather than the security or safety of the individual. One of our major roles in public policy discussions is the ability to set the public agenda and say what matters in the public discourse. If we do this now, we can start the process to move privacy and security issues higher on everyone’s agenda. That will force the government to deal with public concerns, rather than be able to ignore lone media inquiries that fall too often on deaf ears.

Now, none of these stories is very “sexy” in the sense that they have compelling picture, video or characters to drive them to be more compelling to audience members. That makes selling these stories to editors really tough—and selling them to consumers even tougher. That, I suppose, is the last goal to come out of the Snowden talk on Monday. It leaves us a mandate to sell these stories as being as important as they really are to all of us.

avatar_646Stacey Woelfel is a 2013-2014 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow and the news director of KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate at the University of Missouri. As a Reynolds Fellow, Woelfel is wanting to add a richer experience to traditional linear television news consumption by developing and exploring second-screen engagement opportunities at KOMU. Second-screen viewing means audience members are using a mobile device to view content while watching news broadcasts. Click here to learn more.

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