Julian Assange to SXSW: We're all being watched

From his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, with roughly a dozen police officers outside, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Saturday that everyone in the world will be just as effectively monitored soon -- at least digitally.

"The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there and, arguably, will be there in the next couple of years," said Assange, speaking via Skype to a large audience at the South by Southwest Interactive festival here.

Assange rocketed to international fame, and infamy, in 2010 after Wikileaks began helping publish secret government documents online.

Ecuador granted Assange asylum in June 2012 and he fled to the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he raped one woman and sexually molested another.

He calls those charges false and politically motivated, but has said he fears Sweden will transfer him to the United States, where he could face the death penalty for the work of WikiLeaks if he were charged and convicted of a crime.

On Saturday, he called life in the embassy "like a prison," adding that actual inmates "arguably" have it worse.

Saturday's talk was billed as a question-and-answer session, but because of technological glitches it ended up being mostly an hourlong speech by Assange, punctuated occasionally with questions from Twitter.

The one-sided conversation seemed to turn off some members of the 2,000 people in the audience, many of whom streamed out before Assange was finished speaking.

With little to guide him other than his own thoughts (moderator Benjamin Palmer's audio connection appeared to go down after about 15 minutes), Assange was largely left to expound upon his views that world powers like the United States and England have overstepped their bounds in terms of online surveillance.

He said the U.S. National Security Agency has become a "rogue agency" with too much power, even suggesting that President Barack Obama would be toppled politically if he attempted to disband the agency.

"They would come up with all of this dirt (on Obama)," he said. "Congress may impeach him ... a criminal act would come to light."

Assange described activist groups like WikiLeaks as freedom fighters in an age when governments have occupied what should be their citizens' private online space.

"Now that the Internet has merged with human society, the laws of human society should apply to the Internet," he said.

He said that because governments keep so much information secret, citizens don't have a complete picture of what is happening

"We're all actually living in a world that we don't understand," he said. Assange called it a "fictitious representation of the world," an illusion in which "the true nature of government power structures is obscured.

"We're walking around constantly in this fog."

He also had harsh word for private Internet titans such as Facebook and Google, who have come under scrutiny in recent years for collecting data about their users.

"What is going on is an unprecedented theft of wealth from the majority of the population by those who already have a lot of power," said Assange when asked a question about Facebook and privacy.

"They're doing that in part by stealing information from all of us. Knowledge is power, and so they're accumulating a lot of power."

He had similar complaints about Google, noting that there are now 1 billion Android devices in the world. "That's a big problem, that a single group is able to capture that much information (about people). You are all the product."

Assange's talk was one of several high-profile events at this tech-themed conference dedicated to online privacy and transparency. On Monday, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is scheduled to address an SXSW crowd via a live feed from his exile in Russia.

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