WASHINGTON — Saturday marked the 12-year anniversary of the initial signing of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, the anti-terrorism bill signed into law shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, sections of which have allegedly given federal law enforcement the authority to surreptitiously collect the digital communications data of millions of innocent U.S. citizens.
Protesting the U.S. government’s sweeping surveillance program, as revealed by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, thousands of privacy and security advocates convened at Union Station in the nation’s capital and marched to the Capitol steps on Saturday.
The Stop Watching Us coalition, a conglomeration of whistle-blowers, technologists, activists, and public advocacy groups, organized the rally, demanding that Congress reveal the full extent of federal law enforcement’s spying activities. As one speaker at the rally noted, the coalition brings together strange bedfellows, drawing support from different ends of the political and cultural spectrum. Members of the coalition include Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, the Tea-Party aligned political fundraising group FreedomWorks, a Vermont company that makes ice cream, called Ben & Jerry’s, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the man widely credited with having invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, among others.
In a letter to Congress, the coalition demanded that it enact reform “to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court; Create a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying. This committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance; Hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.”
Amidst much chanting, drumming, and outraged shouting, the rally-goers delivered some 575,000 signed anti-surveillance petitions to the steps of U.S. Capitol Building.
The evening before the rally, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Public Citizen hosted a crypto-party at Public Citizen’s second story office in DuPont Circle. EFF staff members and others put on clinics on setting up encrypted email, browsing securely on the Tor network, and a system called Secure Drop, originally developed by the late technologist and open-Internet activist Aaron Swartz, and designed to let whistle-blowers and other sensitive sources deliver information securely to the media.
Cryptographer and Internet security philosopher Bruce Schneier and former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson provided keynotes at the crypto party.
Schneier urged the audience to use encryption, thus making blanket data collection too expensive for the NSA. Encryption works, he claimed, noting that law enforcement had culled ten times more information from Yahoo than from Google, which is counterintuitive given Google’s far larger user-base, but makes sense when you consider that Google has SSL implemented by default, and Yahoo only recently announced that it would implement SSL by default in the coming months.
“The math works, but math has no agency,” Schneier said. “ The vulnerabilities come when you turn the math into software, into systems, onto computers, onto networks.”
He went on to say that Snowden’s revelations seem to suggest that the NSA is not breaking encryption but rather that they are exploiting bad implementations and default or weak keys, deliberately inserting backdoors, and exfiltrating data.
Schneier espoused a need to move government surveillance from a wholesale practice to a retail one by using encryption and making data collection more expensive.
“Even if you are doing nothing secret,” he went on, “you’re providing cover traffic for all the dissidents that rely on this to stay alive. The more we can encrypt, the more we can protect those who need to encrypt.”
Former governor Johnson reluctantly analogized the scale of NSA programs to the climate in pre-World War II Germany.
“I don’t want the government to fix anything when it comes to the Internet. And I certainly don’t want the government involved in this scale of broad-based surveillance that, historically, you do have to go back to Germany pre-World War Two and the monetary collapse that happened in Germany and the rise of power of Hitler and the information gathering. I mean, I hate to bring those analogies up, but they exist and that is where all of this ultimately goes.”