August 31, 2014,
New York, NY.
The Fourth Amendment ensures that people feel secure that their physical mail and personal possessions are safe from unwarranted search and seizure, so why are the same rights not afforded to e-mail?
Founded in 1950, the Stasi (East Germany’s secret service) was known as one of the world’s most wide-reaching and repressive secret services. At its height, the organization employed thousands of people to run a network of informants who would report on people deemed “suspicious.”
The amount of manpower required was incredible: mail had to be individually steamed open and phone conversations had to be manually listened to. there were no computers to pick out phrases of interest and certainly no storage system that could siphon up the audio of every cellphone call into and out of entire countries .
Technology facilitates the creation of large intrusive databases while simultaneously enabling the existence of advocacy groups such as the Guerrilla Open Access Movement, which calls for an end to academic journal paywalls. As far as individual activism goes, the Internet has revolutionized how we advocate for change. Now, individuals can effect change on a grander scale than was ever possible thanks to distributed systems and the falling cost of getting online.
To get news on Arab Spring or the riots in Ferguson, we no longer have to depend on the mainstream media. Now, we can ferret out the best sources of news, which are often people on the ground who, thanks to this new technology, can broadcast to millions in real-time from their cellphones.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), two organizations to the fore of the dragnet surveillance debate, were both founded and active long before the Internet became a ubiquitous part of both our business and private lives. (The EFF was founded in 1990, the ACLU in 1920.) These organizations promote norms such as a free and open internet and frame the ensuing surveillance debate, ensuring that fear and ignorance are not motivating forces for unjust or unconstitutional behavior.
Some governments want to harness the internet as a tool to crack down on dissent. “Only criminals want anonymity online,” they tell us, even though victims of domestic abuse or LGBTQ teenagers both extensively use anonymous online message-boards for support. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” they tell us, even though both the founding fathers and the United Nations have continually affirmed the human right to privacy. “Phone metadata isn’t intrusive,” they tell us, even though much can be inferred by someone calling an abortion clinic late at night or a suicide hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge.
In particular, the gathering of metadata directly violates a US citizen’s right to privacy and infringes on their ability to associate freely, without fear of retribution. The staffers of Diane Feinstein, a congresswoman who has continuously dismissed the notion that metadata is intrusive, refuse to give in to activists’ calls for Feinstein to release her call-sheets, documents listing who the congresswoman talked to, and which are made up exclusively of metadata. They believe, rightly, that this is private information, so why does the congresswoman continue to ignore the legitimate concerns of US citizens?
The ostensible reason for intrusive surveillance is that such monitoring ultimately makes us safer. It is important, however, to distinguish between what provides physical safety versus the perception of same. But as the numerous attempted terrorism plots since 9/11 prove security theaters at airports do not, in fact, do a particularly good job of keeping weapons and illicit objects off airplanes. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70% of knives, 30% of guns, and 60% of fake bombs . Airport security provides the appearance of safety, but this is ultimately a mirage. As security expert Bruce Schneier has noted:
“The way to prevent airplane terrorism is not to keep objects that could fall into the wrong hands off of airplanes; a better goal is to keep those with the wrong hands from boarding airplanes in the first place.” 
While it’s hard to argue with the alleged objective of national security, it’s become apparent in the last year or two that the US government wants more than to just secure its own safety. When NSA slides with stated motives like “collect it all, know it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all” become public, it becomes apparent that the US government wants to go further than ensure its own security, it wants to create a system worldwide where no communication or action takes place online without it being “collected”, exploited”, and sniffed” for the benefit of the USA.
In short, the NSA wants an end to private internet usage to the economic and diplomatic benefit of the USA and its allies.
The Snowden leaks, for example, revealed that the NSA engages in what can only be described as economic espionage: electronic eavesdropping and e-mail interception of Brazilian oil giant Petrobas to the benefit of the Canadian oil and mining sector. During the fifth Summit of the Americas, a conference where economic accords are negotiated, a 2009 letter from Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon to then-NSA chief Keith Alexander stated that “the NSA gave us deep insight into the plans and intentions of other Summit participants.”
Clearly, neither of these examples have anything to do with counterterrorism objectives.
As mass surveillance continues to be an issue to the fore of public consciousness, perhaps in the next few years we as a society will decide that the privacy infringements are a cost we are willing to pay in a more secure society. At the very least, however, this will require public debate that is both rigorous and well-informed.
If the NSA is allowed to eliminate anonymity online, the results will be catastrophic. Around the world, journalists, lawyers, doctors, activists, and human rights workers would be unable to do their jobs. Doctor-patient confidentiality would be eradicated, journalists would no longer be able to guarantee source anonymity, and the safety of activists working to subvert oppressive regimes would be in jeapordy.
We have a responsibility to the 3 billion internet users who will come online in the next 6 years. We have to act as responsible stewards, ensuring that future users have access to an open and trustworthy internet. Overzealous legislators can’t be allowed to dismantle the internet of today in their misguided attempts to ensure national security.
Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He tweets as @tommycollison.
 Schneier, Bruce. “Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World.” Copernicus, 2003.