The United States is "setting fire to the Internet," and the technology community is best positioned to "really fix things," fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden said in a live video appearance Monday at the South by Southwest conference.
Snowden, who leaked information about the National Security Agency's massive data surveillance program and subsequently sought asylum in Russia, spoke via Google with Christopher Soghoian, technologist at the ACLU.
Appearing in front of an image of the U.S. Constitution, Snowden defended his leaking of NSA data, which he said actually improved U.S. national security by exposing vulnerabilities. "America has more to lose than anyone else," the former NSA contractor said.
"I took an oath to protect the Constitution and I found there was a huge violation of the Constitution, and that's something the public ought to know," Snowden said. If the U.S. doesn't change its policies, it gives every other government the green light to treat their citizens' data the same way, he said.
While acknowledging that many people disapprove of Snowden's leaks, Soghoian said the disclosures improved security by forcing tech companies to quickly improve.
"We all have Ed to thank," Soghoian said.
Silicon Valley firms have made improvements, but end-to-end security for communication is still "not very polished," Soghoian said. Those products are typically "made by geeks, for geeks," he said.
People have been left to themselves to defend against cyberthreats, Soghoian said, while the government has focused it's efforts on surveillance.
"We need to prioritize security ... and NSA is not crazy about us going down that path," Soghoian said.
Snowden said the collection of data is not by itself objectionable. "It's not that you shouldn't collect the data, it's that you should only hold it as long as you need," he said.
Soghoian said the goal of privacy advocates is to make mass surveillance so costly that governments will have to raise the bar dramatically on whom they want to spy on, a goal that encryption helps facilitate.
"We need a watchdog that watches Congress," Snowden said.
Regarding consumer privacy of their data, Soghoian said people need to rethink their relationships with the companies they use.
"If you want a secure service, you're going to have to pay for it," Soghoian said.
Also on the panel was Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
The event was one of the more high-profile sessions at this year's SXSW, as Snowden's revelations opened the eyes of much of the world as to how vulnerable online data is to snooping.
—By CNBC's Matt Hunter, with reporting by Cadie Thompson and Harriet Taylor.