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Will Public Outrage Rein in the NSA?

Citizens can “take back” the Internet from the National Security Agency’s excessive spying and surveillance.

by / March 25, 2014

Last week, government contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden gave a TED talk in Canada via a robot that he controlled from a laptop in Russia. During his talk, he told audience members how they could “take back” the Internet from the National Security Agency’s excessive spying and surveillance.

Snowden, world-famous for leaking NSA documents in 2013 that revealed the agency’s spying program, claimed that the government’s Prism program gives it the power to force companies to collect information about consumers with warrants on behalf of federal powers, whether these companies want to or not. And even when those companies comply, federal agencies have at times broken into the corporate networks to obtain data anyway.

“Because of that, we need our companies to work very hard to guarantee that they’re going to represent the interests of the user and also advocate for the rights of the users,” Snowden said.

Snowden’s is the most vocal high-profile voice to join the collective shouting that’s been directed at the NSA this month for its surveillance activity. Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg, Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, have also decried the government’s digital spying and advocated for a free, open Internet experience. 

The March media blitzkrieg against the NSA includes damaging headlines like, How the NSA Plans to Infect ‘Millions’ of Computers With Malware and NSA Has ‘Industrial Scale’ Malware for Spying; they essentially claim that the agency plans to infiltrate computers with malware that will collect data from the computers without the users’ knowledge or permission.

The NSA called such reports “inaccurate” in a statement, saying that it “uses its technical capabilities only to support lawful and appropriate foreign intelligence operations, all of which must be carried out in strict accordance with its authorities.”

But these denials weren’t enough to prevent Zuckerberg from asking President Obama to protest the NSA’s actions. Zuckerberg was likely riled by a report that the agency posed as a fake Facebook server to exfiltrate users’ hard drive files. Zuckerberg posted that he’d called the president and complained about the “damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.”

The South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, was perhaps the month’s most prominent public forum for NSA opponents to warn taxpayers. Assange, arguably the most well-known symbol of government whistleblowing pre-Snowden, addressed attendees through video broadcast from an Ecuadorian embassy in London. 

“As we have moved our lives onto the Internet — nearly all our important economic and personal interactions… the national security agency has been sucking all this up, and their ability to store all that information has been doubling every 18 months,” he said.

Assange argued that the NSA’s ability to store and transmit data is increasing more quickly than the human population’s growth rate, which means that the agency’s not far away from tracking and monitoring every person on the planet. 

“That’s led to a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled upon to those who control the surveillance complex,” he said. “It’s an interesting post-modern version of power.”

But perhaps the most interesting and important critic of government spying on the Internet is Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web 25 years ago. The future of his creation is at the center of the great digital privacy debate. 

He’s criticized governments for spying in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, and he told the Guardian that society has thrived with the Web being the open medium it was when he made it decades ago.

Berners-Lee believes that the world needs an online Bill of Rights to preserve the Internet’s freedom and openness. His plan is part of a campaign called the Web We Want.

“We need to think about the next 25 years and make sure that we establish these principles that the Web’s been based on, principles of openness, principles of privacy [and] of not being censored,” he said.

President Obama supports the NSA, but public pressure may be prompting him to modify its programs. He defended the agency last summer after Snowden exposed its spying and claimed that some privacy must be sacrificed for security’s sake.

“You can't have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a government,” he said after a speech.

But as recently as this week, he’s proposed to Congress the ending the agency’s bulk collection of phone records, following a ban he placed on the NSA’s spying on America’s allies on January 17. Reuters reported on a speech Obama gave where he told the audience that his reforms should make the world breathe a little easier.

"The reforms I'm proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected," he said, "even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe."

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