National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on Monday said the U.S. government is “setting fire to the future of the Internet" and encouraged tech enthusiasts at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, to fight back, calling them “firefighters.”

Snowden suggested that the NSA's sweeping surveillance practices are undermining web-based businesses, citing public fears that the government is collecting data on private Internet activity that could be used against citizens.

“There's a policy response that needs to occur. But there's also a technical response that needs to occur,” he said. “The NSA [and other countries' intelligence agencies] they're setting fire to the future of the Internet and the people who are in this room now, you guys are all the firefighters.”

Snowden, currently living in exile in Russia where he is evading U.S. law enforcement, spoke to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in a video interview with Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union's principal technologist.

Many in the Obama administration have criticized Snowden, saying his leaks hurt U.S. security. But Soghoian defended Snowden, saying that “his disclosures have improved internet security.”

“The security improvements we've gotten have protected us against hackers” who target people surfing the internet while at Starbucks, as well as common criminals trying to hack into private information, he said.

“It really took the largest and most profound whistleblower in history” for these changes to take place, he added.

Snowden also had harsh words for NSA Director Keith Alexander, as well as his predecessor in that post, Michael Hayden.

“It's very interesting to see officials like Keith Alexander talking about damage that's been done to sort the defense of our communications,” he said.

Snowden said Alexander and Hayden were the two officials who had most “harmed” the U.S. because “so much of our country's economic success is based on our intellectual property.”

Hayden and Alexander, he continued, elevated the use of mass phone and Internet surveillance so they could have “an attack advantage.”

Snowden though dismissed the administration’s claims that the new surveillance practices had made the public safe and prevented terror attacks.

“We've reached the point where the majority of Americans' telephone communications are being recorded … but it has no value at all. It's never helped us,” said Snowden. “We've actually had tremendous intelligence failures … and that lack of focus has caused us to miss leads that we had.”

Snowden cited warning Russia gave about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects that U.S. authorities failed to follow up on as well as the attempted downing of an airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, despite the bomber’s father informing the U.S. that his son was dangerous and should not be allowed in the country.