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SXSW: Keeping data secure, possible ‘killer apps’ and more

by Alan Melson 8 Mar 2014 9:05 AM

Here’s our first dispatch from this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference, including frank discussions of digital security and privacy, nods to potential “killer apps” and a preview of what’s to come.


Good morning from rainy Austin, where I’m attending this year’s South By Southwest Interactive gathering!  I’ll be posting here periodically over the next three days about emerging trends and topics from the conference, particularly about the colliding worlds of art, technology and human behavior.  If you have questions or want to suggest a topic, let me know at @amelson on Twitter.

South By Southwest, the sprawling annual conference that crowds Austin and surrounding areas every March, is back this year with what may be its largest Interactive offering ever, drawing an expected crowd of more than 30,000 attendees (the film and music portions of the conference will bring another 40,000 or so next week).  Austin Kleon, who writes frequently about creative openness and collaboration between artists and creators, used his opening keynote on Friday to sarcastically reiterate a frequent complaint: “Is (SXSW) over? Has it gotten too big?”

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt at SXSW, March 7, 2014. (Greg Swan via Flickr)

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt at SXSW, March 7, 2014. (Greg Swan via Flickr)

Despite (or because of) the conference’s size, there are plenty of fascinating sessions to check out.  NPR’s Elise Hu wrote a nice primer on expected areas of focus for this year’s conference, including a number of sessions focused on privacy and security.  This topic is of particular interest now, given the past year’s revelations about National Security Agency spying, as well as spying or hacking incidents attributed to a number of other countries.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will be appearing separately via teleconference during SXSW to discuss their direct roles in uncovering supposed government intrusions (Editor’s Note: KERA’s Stephen Becker filed this report on Assange’s chat), but Friday’s early sessions featured a chat with Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who delved into the company’s issues with governments trying to gain access to its data.

“We have strengthened our defenses in ways we have said publicly, and some other ones we have not disclosed,” Schmidt said. “We think your information is very safe from what we view as inappropriate actions by foreign and domestic governments.”

He urged attendees to be vigilant about maintaining their own data security, and vowed that Google will continue to advocate for protecting its users’ information, saying, “”You should fight for your privacy or lose it.”

Other topics that pop up a lot in the schedule (and that we’ll be covering here) include the concept of an Internet of Things – the proliferation of connected devices in our everyday lives, from smartphones and tablets to TVs and appliances – and the blurring of lines between branding and storytelling.

New app Frontback.

New app Frontback.

Besides the actual sessions, there’s plenty of hype each year around potential breakout products – fitting, given the conference’s reputation for helping new “killer apps” make it big.  This year’s early buzz includes Secret, an elegant new app from former Google and Square employees that is singularly focused on sharing anonymously – like a Facebook or Twitter with no names.   Given that your initial social circle in the app is built off of your contacts list, it remains to be seen how anonymous it really is (even without your name attached to posts), but it bears watching.

Other apps popping up in discussions around the conference include Jelly, an offering from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone that launched in January and encourages collective Q&A – a way to post questions and get answers, or as the company puts it, “A loosely distributed networks of people coordinating via Jelly to help each other.”  And lastly, a fun app called Frontback, with a name that describes its purpose: It allows you to post photos using both the front- and rear-facing cameras simultaneously.  A limited premise, but one that should still draw a lot of downloads – and has already drawn millions in funding.