advocacy

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

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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

Looking Back on 6 Years of Fighting for Chelsea Manning

Follow me on Twitter @RaineyReitman

President Obama announced that he would commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence today. Instead of spending another 28 brutal years in a military prison for men, she’ll walk free in just a few months.

Chelsea inspired me, and her actions forever changed my life. I remember watching the Apache helicopter video of American soldiers gunning down unarmed people in Iraq, including a Reuters journalist and two children. It fundamentally changed how I saw America’s overseas wars.

I believed strongly that this video belonged in the public. People who elect our government had a right to see what was being done in our name. They had a right to decide for themselves if they agreed with our foreign policies. The day it was published by Wikileaks, I sent it to pretty much everyone I knew.

In late May 2010, Manning was detained. Sometime around June 10th or 11th, word leaked out to the press that an Army analyst named “Bradley Manning” was being charged with leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. On June 11th, an anarchist in Bratislava named Mike Gogulski put up a blog post on BradleyManning.org—a domain he had just registered—linking to the Apache helicopter video. On June 13th, he put out a blog post asking for volunteers.

He said he needed writers:

“We need people writing on-topic, current material on an ongoing basis. Articles could be published here either under your name or pseudonymously, and material already published elsewhere is welcome.”

I decided to send an email.

At the time, just sending that first email seemed scary. Manning was being labeled a traitor, and I was living in the military-heavy town of San Diego and thinking I might one day apply for a job at the Federal Trade Commission. I thought getting involved with Manning’s campaign might land me on some government watch list, or hurt future career opportunities.

Instead, I was swept up, and the campaign we built together over the coming weeks, months, and years took over my life.

My friend Charles Langley, who was the first person I talked to about wanting to do something about Chelsea Manning, said at the time that he feared I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I replied that life was about biting off more than you can chew.

Today, looking back over the beauty, mess, and weirdness of the last six and a half years, I still believe it. Life is definitely about biting off more than you can chew.

It boggles the mind to think how far we came with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. In some ways, we were squaring off against the United States government itself, with its seemingly infinite resources. As the trial dragged on for years, we had to fundraise for every dollar to cover legal fees, buy supplies to send mailings, and pay a pittance to a small group of overworked, dedicated, wonderful organizers who used every scrap of bravery and creativity imaginable to advance the public’s knowledge of Chelsea Manning.

That campaign included billboards, flash mobs, banner drops, rallies, viral videos, and one full page ad in the New York Times. I remember working late in the night to help craft a letter to propose Chelsea Manning for the Nobel Peace Prize, stepping onto a soap box with a bullhorn for the first time in my life, waking up to calls from supporters in other time zones, and sitting in a court room furiously scribbling notes during Chelsea’s pretrial hearing and court martial. 

Even as I continued my work with the Chelsea Manning Support Network, I shifted more of my energy to the Freedom of the Press Foundation over the last few years, where I continued working to raise awareness about Chelsea. We brought the world Chelsea’s voice in court, leaked anonymously to us, and we also launched a crowd-funding campaign to send court reporters to document Chelsea’s entire court martial. Between the two organizations, we covered the overwhelming majority of Chelsea’s legal fees.

Working on the Chelsea Manning campaign, I learned to believe in the transformative power of hope. And also the importance of clear delegation, well-run conference calls, and getting good photos at public events. 

I also learned that heroes are fictional. No matter how awe-inspiring someone seems on paper, we’re all human. In many ways, I appreciated Chelsea even more as I got to know her over the last year, and discovered that she was funny, sensitive, gentle, and deeply intelligent—not someone to put on a pedestal, but someone to trust and talk to as a friend.

I wish that we had won Chelsea’s freedom in court. I wish that she’d received a sentence of time served at her court martial, and that she could have walked out of prison free years ago. As Trevor and I wrote earlier today, “Whistleblowers acting in the public interest should not be beholden to the president’s whims. Instead, fair laws should ensure strong protections for whistleblowers who shed light on human rights abuses, war crimes, corruption, and government deception.”

Even as Chelsea Manning prepares to leave prison, many others await justice. Among them is Edward Snowden, a young man who responsibly disclosed documents about intelligence abuses and has been in exile for years as a result. His campaign—which is far prettier and better organized than anything we ever made for the Chelsea Manning Support Network—is at PardonSnowden.org.

The last 6 years, I’ve been continually inspired by not just Chelsea, but the dedicated group of people working—often with no appreciation—in defense of Chelsea Manning. There are too many to name, but I have to acknowledge a few who have every right to celebrate today. Above all, Jeff Paterson, Project Director of Courage to Resist. I truly believe no one on earth handles a crisis better than Jeff, which is lucky since we had more than our fair share.  Also, David Coombs, Chelsea’s first attorney, who gave everything to her case for many years.

So many people spent years fighting to raise awareness about Chelsea’s case. These include (in no order whatsoever) Daniel Ellsberg, Mike Gogulski (OMG Mike did this really just happen really?), Emma Cape, Trevor Timm, Alexa O’Brien, Evan Greer, Chase Strangio, Nancy Hollander, the amazing individual who is too private for me to name publicly but knows how much I value them, Gerry Condon, David Solnit, Kevin Zeese, Michael Thurman, Charlotte Sheasby-Coleman, Logan Price, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Owen Wiltshire, Nathan Fuller, Melissa Keith, Farah Muhsin, Gary Virginia, Leez, Martin MacKerel, and the rest of Get Up Street Theater, Bob Meola, and Michael Moore. I know I’m forgetting a ton of names, and I’m sorry, but it’s late and I’m still dizzy with gratitude. There were also stellar journalists covering this case, and while I can’t name them all, Glenn Greenwald, Kevin Gosztola, Denver Nicks, and Charlie Savage were especially dedicated to ensuring the public understood this case.

Many organizations other than the Chelsea Manning Support Network  and Freedom of the Press Foundation fought hard to ensure justice for Chelsea, including Courage to Resist, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, ACLU, EFF (my full time job), and Amnesty International. I know there are many others, these are just the few I worked with most closely.

Also, a huge shout-out to those who spoke out for Chelsea Manning in our celebrity video, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Roger Waters, Oliver Stone, Phil Donahue, Alice Walker, Tom Morello, Matt Taibbi, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Davis, Moby, Molly Crabapple, Tim DeChristopher, LT Dan Choi, Bishop George Packard, Russell Brand, Allan Nairn, Chris Hedges, Wallace Shawn, Adhaf Soueif and Josh Stieber.

And finally, a special thanks to Michael Ratner, a tireless advocate for Chelsea Manning until his death. I know he would have been proud to be here today.

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2 interviews for Chelsea Manning campaign

As you may have read, we’re shutting down the Chelsea Manning Support Network. I’ve been processing a lot around this, and will likely write more about it. But for now, I’m just gathering up a few of the old campaign materials and copying them here for archival purposes.

Here are two interviews I did for Chelsea Manning advocacy that I particularly liked. The first, with Tech Crunch, was right before Chelsea changed her name. The second, with Swirl, was after.

Swirl Episode 6- Chelsea Manning, Rainey Reitman, Transgender Law Center from The Michelle Meow Show on Vimeo.

EFF’s full page ad in Wired

This week, you can buy a copy of Wired Magazine’s January edition and see the EFF ad in it. It’s a full page letter to the tech community, urging them to safeguard user data now in light of incoming President Donald Trump’s positions on surveillance and censorship.

This ad was a big lift for me and others at EFF—from figuring out where we would place it, negotiating with Conde Nast’s marketing team, and then working internally with EFF’s legal and graphics team to finalize the ad. I’m really proud of the final version.

Check out the full campaign page.

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Text of the ad:

To the Technology Community:
Your threat model just changed.

Incoming President Donald Trump made campaign promises that, if carried out, threaten the free web and the rights of millions of people. He has praised attempts to undermine digital security, supported mass surveillance, and threatened net neutrality. He promised to identify and deport millions of your friends and neighbors, track people based on their religious beliefs, and suppress freedom of the press.

And he wants to use your servers to do it.

Today, we are calling on the technology community to unite with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in securing our networks against this threat.

Encrypt: Use HTTPS and end-to-end encryption for every user transaction, communication, and activity by default.

Delete: Scrub your logs. You cannot be made to surrender data you do not have.

Reveal: If you get a government request to monitor users or censor speech, tell the world.

Resist: Fight for user rights in court, on Capitol Hill, and beyond.

When you stand with users, we’ll stand with you. EFF has fought for the rights of technology creators and users for 26 years, through four different presidential administrations. As a nonpartisan nonprofit, we combine litigation, activism, and software development to defend civil liberties in the digital world.

The future of our democracy depends on an Internet that is free from censorship and government surveillance. Together we can ensure that technology created to connect and uplift people worldwide is not conscripted into a tool of oppression. Join us in defending users.