Edward Snowden addressed a packed-to-capacity crowd at the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference with a message reminiscent of a line from the hacker scene's favorite campy movie: Hackers of the world, unite.
“Technology enables dissent,” the former NSA contractor told the crowd of thousands via video screen, this time sans robot. He entreated the loose-knit community of hackers, engineers and activists to use their skills to fight surveillance by building a new generation of privacy tools that anyone—not just the technical elite—can easily use.
“The grad school students of the world need to think about what they can do to fix this,” he said, in a broadcast conversation with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and Freedom of the Press Foundation's Trevor Timm. “We need to think about software as a way of expressing our freedom, but also as a way of defending our freedom.”
Dissent is the theme of this year's HOPE conference, and there's no shortage of it among the event's various talks, workshops and panels. A huge portion are devoted to teaching and developing the art of digital self-defense in a world where government mass-surveillance is a fact of life.
The various projects and ideas on display show that the hacker community has beaten Snowden to the punch, but there is still much work to be done. Nadim Kobeissi — the creator of CryptoCat, an easy-to-use encrypted chat app released at the last HOPE conference in 2012 — presented a new app called miniLock, which lets users easily encrypt any file on their computer using their web browser. It uses a simple drag-and-drop interface, allowing users to wrap their files inside locked containers that can be shared on third-party services like Dropbox without fear of snooping governments or unscrupulous employees.
More ambitious proposals include Dark Mail, a secure email protocol being developed by Ladar Levison, the creator of the Lavabit email service used by Snowden. Levison became a celebrated rebel figure in the hacker community after he shut down the service in defiance of a court order which forced him to give the U.S. government access to all of his users' emails.
Other events teach various tactics for blinding Big Brother, from having all websites enable secure HTTPS connections to building local, community-owned wireless networks that are impervious to distant intelligence agencies.
Snowden advocated the need to support and develop such efforts, so that privacy and anonymity are no longer the exclusive domain of the tech-savvy.
"You guys are part of the technical elite,” he said. “We don't want a high priesthood of technology."
He placed special importance on tools like Tor and SecureDrop, which enable whistleblowers to communicate with journalists and leak documents exposing secret government activities — just as a copy machine enabled Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s.
Ellsberg himself was a little less optimistic that technology could ever make it safe for whistleblowers to come forward. Snowden admitted that such tools will never guarantee foolproof privacy and anonymity for leakers, but that it can significantly mitigate the risks. At the same time, he said, these efforts also shouldn't be misunderstood as an attempt to completely eliminate government secrecy; rather, they are a kind of digital dissent which makes passive, dragnet surveillance – like the NSA program which collects the phone records virtually every American – incredibly difficult, and to discourage governments from over-classifying and concealing wrongdoing.
“This is not about anarchy, this is not about wiping out government. When governments realize that when they do something illegal, we will find out about it,” he said, “that will change the way we live.”