Fugitive National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden told attendees at the South by Southwest International Festival Monday that he has no regrets about leaking the NSA documents revealing the illegal wiretaps, and that he would do it again in a heartbeat.
“Would I do it again? Absolutely. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to,” he said.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. And I saw the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale,” he added to a round of applause from the 3,000 people in the auditorium at the Austin Convention Center in Texas, where the conference is held annually.
Snowden spoke via teleconference from Russia, where he sought asylum from the U.S. last summer after telling a reporter at The Guardian that the federal government had been illegally listening in on the phone calls of American citizens domestically. It was the first time the former NSA contractor directly addressed people in the U.S. since he fled the country with thousands of secret documents in hand last June. He currently faces felony charges of espionage and theft of government property in the U.S., and has vowed not to return into the country changes its whistleblower protection laws.
Snowden also told attendees at the 10-day festival that they have to be the ones to help “fix” the United States’ government surveillance of its citizens.
“South by Southwest and the tech community, the people in the room in Austin, they’re the folks who can fix this,” Snowden, sitting in front of a backdrop featuring the U.S. Constitution, told those attending the Austin, Texas conference. “There’s a political response that needs to occur, but there’s also a tech response that needs to occur.”
Snowden took a mixture of questions from the audience and Twitter, with the first coming from Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web 25 years ago this week. Berners-Lee asked Snowden what he would change about the nation’s surveillance system.
“We need public oversight … some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us. We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we’re not informed, we can’t consent to these (government) policies,” he replied.
The NSA whistleblower also answered questions on the difference between government surveillance and snooping by private Internet companies, saying that the former is more dangerous because “the government has the ability to deprive you of rights. They can jail you.”
Also scheduled to speak at the tech-themed conference Monday afternoon are journalist and civil liberties lawyer Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden’s story in the British newspaper.
Prior to his speech Monday, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo urged the festival’s organizers to withdraw its invitation to Snowden, arguing that allowing him to speak would undermine the “fairness and freedom” the event is meant to promote.
Snowden has also been nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the NSA scandal. TIME magazine also named him to its 2013 “Person of the Year” finalists list.