On Saturday, October 26th, I traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in the largest protest against surveillance ever held. The diversity of voices and tactics coming together that weekend to fight mass surveillance gave me hope that this movement can gain enough momentum to challenge the online centralization of power. To give you a sense of what I learned, here is a day by day account, with a list of what you can do to help protect privacy at the end.
Thursday Oct 24, 7:30 PM:
I go to DC to help MMP film a panel called “Enemies of the State: Government Surveillance of Communities of Color”. The Media Mobilizing Project's mission--of building a movement to end poverty by providing the media tools for poor and working class people to organize--leads them to a deep concern with how media can be used to monitor and suppress dissent. Speakers on the panel address the disproportionate effect that surveillance has historically had on communities of color, disrupting movements and targeting leaders. Even today, laws are enforced in discriminatory ways upon vulnerable populations. People who want to change their conditions must have the freedom of private communication in order to organize to build power.
Friday, Oct. 25, 9:00 AM:
I make my way down to the Hill, where seasoned privacy advocates from Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access, and the ACLU teach me and other constituents how to present a case for legislative reform to congressional staffers. I visit the offices of legislative aides from Pennsylvania, where I live, and Oklahoma, where I was born. We urge them to support the upcoming USA Freedom Act that would limit surveillance to cases of proven necessity. In the following days I will track the progress of this piece of legislation as it moves through the House, and continue to email the staffers that I spoke with.
Friday Oct. 25, 3:00 PM:
I attend a Cryptoparty happy hour to learn basic email encryption. The privacy expert shows me how to use GPG (GNU Privacy Guard). When I ask why this technology isn't more widespread he replies, “each one, teach one.” Bruce Schneier, security expert, and Gary Johnson, Libertarian presidential candidate, speak at the event. Schneier explains that even if you have no important information to protect from prying eyes, using encryption will provide cover traffic for those who do, increasing the efficacy of these tools.
Saturday, Oct. 26, 12:00 PM:
The day of the rally is bright and crisp. I carry a flag in the march and chant “They say wiretap, we say fight back!” along with thousands. In front of Congress, Gary Johnson, Thomas Drake, Naomi Wolf, and many others speak out against the dangers that blanket surveillance poses to democracy. The news that the US had been secretly tapping the phones of world leaders has just broken, and international media is present to report on the domestic front of a groundswell of outrage about the NSA's unwarranted, illegal spying.
In an interview, Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee calls the NSA “a secret government agency essentially embezzling secret amounts of public funds to conduct secret programs pursuant to secret interpretations of laws, with secret successes and secret abuses.” The US Government's unwillingness to disclose information regarding its activities reveals a sinister double standard. The powerful expect privacy, and will go to great lengths to protect it, including lying before Congress and prosecuting whistleblowers that air their dirty laundry. Yet the powerless have none. The average citizen is stripped of basic rights over her information, and told that she should not expect any reasonable standard of privacy—that this brave new world of ubiquitous monitoring is for her own good.
Saturday, Oct. 26, 4:00 PM:
I attend a screening of the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, which exposes how corporations and governments have adopted a double standard for information: secrecy for the powerful, surveillance for the people. The false assumption that “I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to be afraid of” plays straight into this. The film contains numerous interviews with individuals who posted unfortunately worded tweets and protesters who were arrested for dressing as zombies--people who did not think they had anything to hide until the agents came knocking. People are not judged according to their own standards of what is harmless, but by the standards of unaccountable, often invisible authorities.
I'm checking the status of the USA Freedom Act, or “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection, and Online Monitoring Act,” as it moves through the House of Representatives. This piece of legislation, which I lobbied for in DC, is a step in the right direction towards reforming the surveillance state. It limits bulk data collection, increases transparency for courts and companies, and creates an advocate for privacy interests. For a breakdown of the pros and cons of what it does, read this summary released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Freedom Act has bipartisan support, and is sponsored by Representative Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and Senator Leahy, a Democrat. Representative Sensenbrenner was also the author of the Patriot Act. His change of heart is understandable–who would want to go down in history as the Author of the Death Blow to Democracy? Outraged by the NSA’s creative interpretation of the law, he has become a leading supporter for increased oversight and transparency.
In addition, major tech companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL have voiced their support of the Freedom Act. Companies want to be allowed to be more transparent about the number and types of data requests they receive, and are outraged by recent revelations that the NSA has been secretly tapping into their internal networks.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is tasked with overseeing NSA spying, is introducing a surveillance bill as well. However, their bill does more to codify existing violations than restrict surveillance. After years of being lied to by the organizations he authorized to spy on Americans, Sensenbrenner is no longer naïve to the conflict of interest that arises from in allowing those who carry out surveillance to self-regulate. In response to the competing bill, Sensenbrenner says "I do not want to see Congress pass a fig leaf because that would allow the NSA to say 'Well, we've cleaned up our act' until the next scandal breaks.”
Despite how promising the USA Freedom Act looks, I don't believe that it goes far enough. A comprehensive reform would regulate the way corporations collect consumer information as well. A staffer I spoke with in Coburn's office expressed exasperation that the NSA was under fire for its surveillance programs when companies like Apple and Google collect user data more freely than government agencies. I agreed with him. We need mechanisms of accountability for what corporations, as well as governments, do with our information.
An exponential growth in networked communication technology has resulted in an information explosion, but more and more of that information has ended up in fewer and fewer hands. Information = knowledge = power, and unequal access only increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots in a society where inequality is shooting through the roof. It's not only the NSA that is positioned to abuse power, but also companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple–these are the virtual fiefdoms that have colonized cyberspace and own the terrain where we cultivate and harvest information.
When the Internet is Under Attack, Stand Up Fight Back!
There is a long road ahead. As Rainey Reitman of the EFF said on Saturday, the rally against mass surveillance was just the beginning of a long struggle for an internet that protects individual privacy. The industry that has been built up around the national security-prison-military state has too much political power, employs too many people, and comprises too much of the economy to be downsized. After the recent revelation that the NSA was tapping directly into Google's private servers, Google engineer Mike Hearn commented, “Unfortunately we live in a world where all too often, laws are for the little people. Nobody at GCHQ or the NSA will ever stand before a judge and answer for this industrial-scale subversion of the judicial process.”
Our scales of justice are warped, permanently tilted to favor the powerful. The agencies tasked with our protection have systematically lied to us, stripping us of civil liberties by waging permanent war and keeping us in the dark about their activities. Mike Hearn, the Google engineer, goes on to say, “In the absence of working law enforcement, we therefore do what internet engineers have always done – build more secure software.” Google has already scrambled to secure its internal servers following last week's reports about the NSA's backdoor access. Before legislation catches up to the requirements of 21st century civil rights, technology can help fill the gap.
If you want to participate in the movement to restore the right to privacy, you can start today. It can be as easy as changing your default search engine. Below, I've made a brief list of technical and social fixes you can attempt.
From a technical, individual adoption angle:
- Make DuckDuckGo, a privacy-protecting service, your default search engine.
- Install Tor, an easy to download “onion router” that provides private web browsing.
- Encrypt your email. Unencrypted email is the equivalent of an unlocked door.
From a legislative, social action angle:
Talk to your friends about the dangers of a surveillance state, and “each one teach one.” Once you have mastered the basics of a technical deterrent to surveillance, pass on the knowledge.
Participate in the campaigns of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Fight for the Future, Access, Restore the Fourth, and the StopWatching.Us Coalition, that are dedicated to fighting for your digital rights.
Call or email your representatives in Congress and urge them to support the USA Freedom Act. Every phone call or email that is received on an issue gets noted by the representative's office staff, and when the time comes to make a decision, these figures can really make a difference.
Organize a screening and discussion of Terms and Conditions May Apply in your living room, school, church, or community center.
Meet up with people in your area to talk about how surveillance affects your community and what you can do about it. In Philadelphia, there is a chapter of Restore the Fourth that organizes protests against the violation of fourth amendment rights, a series of monthly events about NSA surveillance held at The Hacktory, a local investigative journalism blog that profiles the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center in South Philadelphia, and of course the Media Mobilizing Project which works alongside our allies at MAG-Net to address the effects of surveillance upon vulnerable populations.