What It Means for Our Movement That the NSA is Halting One of Its Worst Surveillance Practices

eff-nsa-utah-data-center

NSA’s data center in Utah

The New York Times broke the news Friday that the NSA is ending a surveillance program that has been the subject of years of criticism by civil liberties advocates and members of Congress alike. The news came in waves: a brief snippet from Charlie Savage, then a slightly longer update, then confirmation from the NSA, and then the final version (I assume) from Savage that went up hours after the original.  The NSA is promising to end the practice of collecting Americans’  emails and text exchanges with foreigners that mention key identifiers—like email addresses—that aren’t actually directed to or from the targets of NSA surveillance.  (For my fellow tech policy nerds, we call this “about” surveillance.)

Not only that, but the NSA promises to “delete the vast majority of its upstream internet data to further protect the privacy of U.S. person communications.”

My colleague Kate has a thorough write-up of how to consider this within the larger context of NSA reforms Congress needs to enact, and everyone should go read it. I’m not here to talk about the legal and technical landscape related to this announcement.

I just want to talk about how awesome this moment is.

For the better part of a decade, organizations like the ACLU and EFF have been confronting surveillance abuses by the NSA through the courts. Members of Congress like Senator Wyden have demanded answers to NSA surveillance. And whistleblowers like Mark Klein, Bill Binney, Thomas Drake, and Edward Snowden have risked their freedom to tell the American public the truth about what our government is doing in our name. Countless journalists—including the inimitable Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—have spent years trying to tell the esoteric, muddled story of NSA digital surveillance in a way that regular people could understand.

I think of these actions as seeds of a movement. But the true power of public scrutiny only happened because people actually cared. And make no mistake: even if the FISA Court drove this decision, the ecosystem of resistance that has been built over years created the environment necessary for that decision to happen. Courts, even secret courts, don’t make decisions in a vacuum.

Millions of people—here in the United States and globally—honestly didn’t like the fact that the NSA was sitting on a mountain of intimate digital data like Scrooge McDuck on a pile of gold coins. People were incensed enough to email Congress in droves, ask questions at town halls, send letters to the editor, share articles on Twitter, and take to the streets in protest. I’ve been on those streets and spoken with many of those people, and I’ve been struck by how deeply personal this fight is to so many of them.

Something I’ve noticed in years of speaking to people about NSA spying is that many people are driven to protect the Internet itself. The Internet offers a way to connect millions of people globally to one another and to information, and it’s benefited so many of us in personal, daily ways. It’s not surprising we’re protective of it. For me and others, this fight feels personal because we genuinely like the Internet. It’s fascinating, it brings us joy, and we don’t want the NSA messing it up for us, our friends, and future generations.

And just like we couldn’t have a nice evening our with friends with a government goon standing next to us listening in on our conversations, we can’t enjoy the freedom of the weird, unpredictable, creative Internet when a digital Big Brother is casting a shadow over our communications.

And yes, for all there is still work to be done, this is a moment to celebrate.  Even though so many other aspects of our American political system are teetering toward a more oppressive state, we can all take a moment to enjoy the fact that someone in an NSA data center or office building right now is actually working on deleting millions of records from their databases.

This isn’t the end. I know we have a big fight in Congress this year around NSA spying, and that we need these changes—as well as others—clearly codified into law. But I for one am celebrating. Years of pressure and scrutiny, built on the foundation of damning leaked evidence, were the necessary catalyst for this moment. 

In the wake of the announcement, Edward Snowden tweeted that “People said speaking up isn’t worth the risk. Today, we can see they were wrong. Blow the whistle, change the world.”

Blowing the whistle on abuses is one way to fuel a movement. But remember that it doesn’t make a difference unless people are willing to care. We got to this moment not just because of a handful of brave whistleblowers who spoke out, but because millions of people listened to them and cared.

Important note: most of the time when I write about NSA spying or digital rights, I do it on the EFF blog in my capacity as a blogger for EFF, with strict legal oversight of everything I say. This is a blog post about my personal opinions and doesn’t reflect the views of EFF, or its legal positions or interpretations

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