In one of the most highly anticipated sessions ever at the annual South-by-Southwest (SXSW) culture festival, NSA whistle blower Ed Snowden appeared via live video link from Russia. He joined two privacy and security champions from the American Civil Liberties Union - Chris Soghoian and Ben Wizner - to canvass the vexed tensions between intelligence and law enforcement, personal freedom, government accountability and digital business models.
These guys traversed difficult ground, with respect and much nuance. They agreed the issues are tough, and that proper solutions are non-obvious and slow-coming. The transcript is available here.
Yet afterwards the headlines and tweet stream were dominated by "Snowden's Tips" for personal online security. It was as if Snowden had been conducting a self-help workshop or a Cryptoparty. He was reported to recommend we encrypt our hard drives, encrypt our communications, and use Tor (the special free-and-open-source encrypted browser). These are mostly fine suggestions but I am perplexed why they should be the main takeaways from a complex discussion. Are people listening to Snowden's broader and more general policy lessons? I fear not. I believe people still conflate secrecy and privacy. At the macro level, the confusion makes it difficult to debate national security policy properly; at a micro level, even if crypto was practical for typical citizens, it is not a true privacy measure. Citizens need so much more than secrecy technologies, whether it's SSL-always-on at web sites, or do-it-yourself encryption.
Ed Snowden is a remarkably measured and thoughtful commentator on national security. Despite being hounded around the word, he is not given to sound bites. His principal concerns appear to be around public accountability, oversight and transparency. He speaks of the strengths and weaknesses of the governance systems already in place; he urges Congress to hold security agency heads to account.
When drawn on questions of technology, he doesn't dispense casual advice; instead he calls for multifaceted responses to our security dilemmas: more cryptological research, better random number generators, better testing, more robust cryptographic building blocks and more careful product design. Deep, complicated engineering stuff.
So how did the media, both mainstream and online alike, distill Snowden's sweeping analysis of politics, policy and engineering into three sterile and quasi-survivalist snippets?
Partly it's due to the good old sensationalism of all modern news media: everyone likes a David-and-Goliath angle where individuals face off against pitiless governments. And there's also the ruthless compression: newspapers cater for an audience with school-age reading levels and attention spans, and Twitter clips our contributions to 140 characters.
But there is also a deeper over-simplification of privacy going on which inhibits our progress.
Too often, people confuse privacy for secrecy. Privacy gets framed as a need to hide from prying eyes, and from that starting position, many advocates descend into a combative, everyone-for-themselves mindset.
However privacy has very little to do with secrecy. We shouldn't have to go underground to enjoy that fundamental human right to be let alone. The social reality is that most of us wish to lead rich and quite public lives. We actually want others to know us - to know what we do, what we like, and what we think - but all within limits. Digital privacy (or more clinically, data protection) is not about hiding; rather it is a state where those who know us are restrained in what they do with the knowledge they have about us.
Privacy is the protection you need when your affairs are not confidential!
So encryption is a sterile and very limited privacy measure. As the SXSW panellists agreed, today's encryption tools really are the preserve of deep technical specialists. Ben Wizner quipped that if the question is how can average users protect themselves online, and the answer is Tor, then "we have failed".
And the problems with cryptography are not just usability and customer experience. A fundamental challenge with the best encryption is that everyone needs to be running the tools. You cannot send out encrypted email unilaterally - you need to first make sure all your correspondents have installed the right software and they've got trusted copies of your encryption keys, or they won't be able to unscramble your messages.
Chris Soghoian also nailed the business problem that current digital revenue models are largely incompatible with encryption. The wondrous free services we enjoy from the Googles and Facebooks of the world are funded in the main by mining our data streams, figuring out our interests, habits and connections, and monetising that synthesised information. The web is in fact bankrolled by surveillance - by Big Business as opposed to government.
End-to-end encryption prevents data mining and would ruin the business model of the companies we've become attached to. If we were to get serious with encryption, we may have to cough up the true price for our modern digital lifestyles.
The SXSW privacy and security panellists know all this. Snowden in particular spent much of his time carefully reiterating many of the basics of data privacy. For instance he echoed the Collection Limitation Principle when he said of large companies that they "can't collect any data; [they] should only collect data and hold it for as long as necessary for the operation of the business". And the Openness Principle: "data should not be collected without people's knowledge and consent". If I was to summarise Snowden's SXSW presentation, I'd say privacy will only be improved by reforming the practices of both governments and big businesses, and by putting far more care into digital product development. Ed Snowden himself doesn't promote neat little technology tips.
It's still early days for the digital economy. We're experiencing an online re-run of the Wild West, with humble users understandably feeling forced to take measures into their own hands. So many individuals have become hungry for defensive online tools and tips. But privacy is more about politics and regulation than technology. I hope that people listen more closely to Ed Snowden on policy, and that his lasting legacy is more about legal reform and transparency than Do-It-Yourself encryption.