Edward Snowden's appearance (via video) at the South by Southwest conference on Monday prompted a spike in coverage of who Snowden is and what he wants and how he manages his image and so on. On Tuesday, Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, the likely next head of the NSA, heads to Capitol Hill to discuss some of the systems Snowden exposed, yielding a series of stories about Rogers. Which should serve as a reminder: The struggle to ensure online privacy exists independent of these two people.
Snowden's emergence from his private life in Russia was guaranteed to attract attention, of course. But "it’s no accident that the first live public appearance that we’ve arranged for Snowden to speak at is South by Southwest and not daytime television," Snowden's attorney, Ben Wizner, told Politico. A Snowden appearance, and the frenzy that would follow, allows the leaker to put spotlights on the issues that he considers the most important. So: SxSW, a convening of tech geeks that would appreciate his message of the need to bolster online defenses against privacy intrusions.
That's the broader fight at hand. Yes, the NSA's surveillance has been bad for business in the tech industry, in part because of companies' legally binding work with the NSA on surveilling customers and in part because of revelations that the NSA tapped connections owned by the companies. But Snowden's point on Monday was less about helping Facebook's bottom line than ensuring that people can communicate online without being observed. He strongly advocated more widespread use of peer-to-peer encryption, scrambling signals between two users so that only those users can decode what's being said. As The New York Times noted, Snowden offered a particularly good example of why he trusts encryption: "The U.S. government still has no idea what documents I have because encryption works."