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Snowden to Hackers: Your Tech Skills Can Save Democracy

NEW YORK — Hackers and other technologically skilled people have a "civic duty" to educate those less tech-savvy on how to use encryption and other security and privacy tools, Edward Snowden told attendees of the HOPE X hacker conference here yesterday (July 19), adding that democracy and free speech depend on technological knowledge.

"We need to think about how technology empowers us," the former National Security Agency contractor said over a video link from Moscow, where he has lived in exile since leaking thousands of NSA documents last year, "and how governments use that same technology."

MORE: Can You Hide Anything from the NSA?

"You in this room right now have both the means and the capabilities to help build a better future by encoding our rights into the programs and the protocols upon which we rely every day," Snowden said to the audience of hackers.

"If you've even heard of Tor, or TAILS ... if you've even heard of Linux, you are an advocate that is going to help us move forward in shifting the middle ground of technology for the next generation," Snowden continued, referring to an Internet-anonymization protocol, a super-secure software suite and the operating system that suite runs on.

"Any of who know even the slightest bit [about computer security] have a civic duty to help educate people around us, just as in the past, people taught each other to read and write," Snowden said. "We have to teach people in our society how to interact with technology safely and reliably in a way that safeguards the interests of all of us, not just a select few."

'Technology empowers democracy'

The alternative, Snowden said, was to continue the present situation in which only a small percentage of the population understands how to use the latest technologies.

"We don't want a high priesthood of technology, no matter how good that is for us," he said, "because it's bad for the world."

Proper understanding of the latest communication methods helps democracy and freedom, Snowden argued, something that Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who was questioning Snowden from New York, should be able to understand.

"Technology empowers dissent," Snowden said to Ellsberg. "People forget this because they think only of modern times ... but they forget that technology actually enabled you. People forget about the fact that you were in a garage with a Xerox machine.

"A copy machine may not seem like a killer app to a lot of people, but that enabled you to get this [the Pentagon Papers] back to the public. And that same Xerox machine that gave you that gave us samizdat [underground publications] in the former Soviet bloc," Snowden said. "Technology empowers individuals. It empowers voices. It empowers democracy."

Governments cannot have a monopoly on technology

Snowden clarified to Ellsberg that he didn't think the U.S. government, or even the NSA, was the natural enemy of the people.

"I'm still politically very moderate," he said. "The very first time I met Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, he called me a radical, and that surprised me, because that was the first time I had ever been called a radical."

"There are so many people throughout the government, throughout the country, who are trying to do the right thing," Snowden said, adding that even among his former co-workers there were "people who saw this was wrong, who agreed this was wrong, who were disturbed by it, who felt we needed to do something. But at the same time, we all have families. We all have lives. We all have things we want to do and things we want to enjoy."

A grave danger, he said, is when less benign governments use the same surveillance tools the U.S. government has developed in even more invasive ways.

"Other governments will make different decisions," he said. "And if we want to live in a better, more enlightened world, what we need to do is we need to remove those capabilities from the governments by enshrining our rights into our means of communications, by denying them those capabilities."

Hacking the Constitution

With regard to the bending of laws and the canon of secret national-surveillance court decisions that has been built to legitimize NSA spying on American citizens, Snowden compared that process to how malicious hackers link together multiple software flaws in order to gain control of someone else's computer system.

"When we look at this in isolation, any step, it might look like clever lawyering by the government," Snowden said. "But when we look at it comprehensively, the government has developed an exploit chain that provides it with the root password to our Constitution. They have escaped the sandbox of our democracy, and they're basically using it to change our Bill of Rights without us seeing it."

The solution, he argued, is greater technological literacy, which will lead to greater transparency.

"When governments realize that when they do unlawful things, when they do unconstitutional things, or when they do things that are entirely legal but comprehensibly immoral, we will find out about it, [then] that will change the world," he said.

MORE: Should You Trust US Companies With Your Data?

'Think about the world we want to live in'

Blowing the whistle on secret NSA programs were worth risking his freedom and losing his comfortable way of life, Snowden said, but others who face similar situations should consider the costs of not pointing out government malfeasance.

"If people aren't willing to take risks to reveal wrongdoing, even if it means they have to burn their own life down to do it, [then] their families are going to have to live in that society," Snowden said. "The values that they hold dear will disappear from the world we live in."

Yet Snowden seemed cautiously optimistic about the future — and began his closing remarks by addressing the "people from the NSA" in the audience.

"To you guys who work for the NSA who are in the room," Snowden said, "I'm not telling you what to do. I'm not telling you what to believe in. It's okay if you hate me. It's okay if you disagree with me. It's okay for everybody to look at this, because we have to decide how we feel.

"We have to stop thinking that what's on the news is the gospel truth, or what an official says behind the podium is exactly the right answer, or what I say is something that you can rely on," he added. "I could be totally full of [expletive]."

"You've got to figure out what you believe, and stand for it," Snowden concluded. "Whether I'm a good guy or whether I'm a bad guy, whether I'm a hero or whether I'm a traitor — none of that matters. Criticize me. Hate me. But think about what matters in the issues. Think about the world we want to live in — and then be part of building that."

Follow Paul Wagenseil at @snd_wagenseil. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.