Snowden calls encryption “defense against the dark arts”

Encrypting our communications is the best way to thwart mass government surveillance programs, according to fugitive whistle blower Edward Snowden, who appeared via live-stream at the SXSW tech festival in Austin on Monday.

Snowden, whose leaks have exposed secret data collection operations between the NSA and major U.S. companies, claims that is impossible for specific individuals to hide from the government, but that encryption will render the current practice of mass surveillance expensive and impractical.

“Encryption is the defense against the dark arts for the digital realm,” Snowden said, appearing against a backdrop of the Constitution, and protected by what he described as “7 proxies” – an apparent allusion to a 4Chan meme.

Snowden’s remarks came as part of a public discussion with ACLU lawyer Christopher Soghoian over how to take privacy techniques employed by tech enthusiasts — which Snowden described as “firefighters” who can oppose those who are “setting fire to the future of the internet” – and make them accessible to average people.

“Most regular people are not going to go out and download an obscure encryption app,” noted Snowden, adding that large companies can easily take steps to help their customers communicate in a more secure fashion. He cited Google’s (s GOOG) decision in 2010 to add SSL to its services, which “made passive surveillance much more difficult.”

Snowden also singled out two government officials, the NSA’s Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander, for doing more harm to the internet and U.S. national security than anyone else. He claimed the men make a strategic mistake by reconfiguring NSA cyber operations into an offensive rather than a defensive role, and that attacks launched by the agency have hurt privacy without making the country any safer.

“When you have a vault that’s more full than anyone else’s, it does’t make sense to attack. When you set the standards for vaults worldwide, it makes no sense to have a big backdoor,” he said, an allusion to the NSA’s controversial practice of compromising global encryption standards so the agency can tap into devices and networks.

In addition to urging major tech companies to offer encryption as a common feature, Snowden also suggested Tor as a way to preserve privacy, although he acknowledged such tools are still beyond the capacity of average internet users.

Snowden also took questions via Twitter, including one from my colleague David Meyer, and received multiple ovations from a partisan crowd. The overall discussion hewed closely to tech topics, and did not broach geopolitical questions such as the relative moral standings of governments like China or Russia, where Snowden is now taking refuge.