Edward Snowden calls for ‘protocol level’ protection of human rights

‘When we create safe and reliable means of protecting human rights at the protocol level, at the system level, where rights cannot be abrogated simply because it is convenient or because someone asked, we create not just a better world, we create a freer world’

Famed exposer of the NSA’s secrets, Edward Snowden, is calling for the development of technology that enables the protection of personal information at a fundamental, system, level, claiming this is not only possible but essential if future generations are to enjoy the rights and freedoms of today’s democratic societies.

Snowden, addressing by video link the conference in Boston of open source software body the OpenStack Foundation, said technology could enforce the protection of human rights beyond borders.

“[We can] develop protocols and systems that invisibly surround us, that are in our pockets, where even if somebody does not touch the internet personally but their communications transit the internet [they will be protected],” Snowden said.

“When we create safe and reliable means of protecting human rights at the protocol level, at the system level, where rights cannot be abrogated simply because it is convenient or because someone asked, we create not just a better world, we create a freer world.

“And this could happen in every corner of the world as fast as we could proliferate the technology.”

He added: “I would argue not only that we can do this, not only that we should do this but if the next generation is to enjoy the same rights that we have inherited, we must.”

Snowden said he had made extensive use of such technologies, in particular Tor, when disseminating his NSA information to journalists and that he was now working on other technologies along these lines to enable people to contact journalists anonymously.

Shortly after being catapulted to global fame by his NSA leaks, Snowden was elected to the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “I am now the president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and my primary work there has been expanding the open source development efforts that we have in house,” he said.

(According to a recent Wired article Snowden was invited to join the group’s board as a largely symbolic gesture but “surprised the board members by showing up to his first meeting with a list of detailed changes to its 40-plus pages of bylaws,” and the following year, 2015, was unanimously elected its president.)

Snowden told the OpenStack conference audience “We have SecureDrop, which is one of older major important tools for allowing anonymous sources to contact journalists securely but there are a lot of really other interesting efforts that you will be hearing more about this year.”

One such he described as hardware to ensure that cellphones are operating according to their settings and have not been compromised to do otherwise. “When you turn on flight mode, how do you know that the baseband antenna has been powered down? When you turn off location services, how do you know the GPS is off?” Snowden asked.

“You are trusting a software attestation, but a rootkit can make that lie to you So we are developing hardware that will be free and open where you will actually be able to look at the electron flow and circuit paths and confirm that for yourselves.”

Snowden advocated strongly for wider use of open source software, saying that all proprietary software had the potential to compromise users’ confidential information.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

“When you are running things on Amazon’s stack, on Google’s stack, how do you know when your image has been passed to some adversarial group? How do you know whether it has been taken by an employee and sold to a competitor? Whether it has been passed to the FBI, legally or illegally? You don’t have any awareness of this because it is happening in a layer that is hidden.”

The author attended the OpenStack Summit as a guest of the OpenStack Foundation.

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