Ever since news came out about Edward Snowden’s leak of secret National Security Agency surveillance programs, there have been both denunciations of Snowden and widespread expressions of support. Both the Obama administration and the technology companies entangled in the programs are under heightened scrutiny. But what does the leak mean for organizing? To find out, I asked a few questions of a pair of organizers developing plans to further a pro-democracy, pro-transparency agenda in the wake of these revelations.
Josh Levy is Internet campaign director at Free Press, where he advocates on behalf of consumer protection and open access. David Segal is executive director of Demand Progress, an advocacy organization he founded with the late Aaron Swartz.
What was your first thought when you found out about the Snowden leak? Did it surprise you?
Levy: I wasn’t surprised exactly — thanks to the hard work by friends at ACLU and EFF, we’d known that programs like this existed. But we didn’t have these kinds of details until last week, and even though we’ve been a bit hardened to the probability that the NSA was harvesting our data in an indiscriminate way, it was still shocking to see it laid out in such a plain way.
Segal: It was pleasantly surprising that somebody was willing to risk their personal comfort to leak this information, but the contents have been spoken to for years by other whistleblowers.
Does the information in the leak change your understanding of the problems that your work tries to tackle? How do you understand the nature of your opponent differently now?
Segal: I’m trying to understand why it snowballed this time, but not when, say, William Binney started talking about it. Even though he’s quite credible, in a way that’s buttressed by the government’s harassment of him. Was it the zeitgeist after the other mini-scandals? Was it the PowerPoint slide? So it changes my sense of what makes these things stick.
Levy: The leaks prove that the government is going to the utmost lengths to hide what it’s doing, even from the companies it’s getting data from. Our work centers on protecting people’s freedoms to connect and to communicate, and those freedoms can’t exist in a surveillance state. Seeing the way the Washington establishment — from both parties — has rushed to defend these practices has made it clear that opposition to government spying is truly non-partisan. It will only succeed if millions of regular people band together, because too many people in power are apologizing for — or cheerleading — what’s going on.
Whom did you call? What networks are already in place that are being drawn upon to organize in the wake of the leak?
Levy: There are dozens of organizations working on various angles of Internet freedom and press freedom issues. Many of us have worked together before on SOPA/PIPA and CISPA, so it was easy to bring this “band” back together. And similar to SOPA, what’s been surprising has been the vast diversity of groups, both politically and otherwise, banding together to protect our right to communicate in private.
What strategic opportunities for you as activists does the leak create? Are there any new targets coming into view for campaigns? New constituencies mobilized?
Segal: A lot of us were at the Personal Democracy Forum, where Josh deserves particular credit for rounding people up. It’s much of the coalition that’s worked on issues like CISPA in recent years. We went to the Demand Progress base right away and are delivering about 80,000 signatures to Congress today.
Levy: You could say that a new constituency is forming right now, a constituency of left/right/other groups and individuals who might disagree about 99 percent of the things they care about, but who are passionate about privacy and the First Amendment. If we’re successful in building out this movement, it will be a formidable counter to the establishment that’s much too willing to sweep the NSA’s behavior under the rug and to claim — with little evidence — that all of this spying helping to protect us.
Do you wish the leak had taken place in a different way? What advice would you give to prospective whistleblowers about how best to help activists do follow-up work?
Levy: The leaks happened; what’s done is done. Whisteblowers seem to be empowered by the growing movement of supporters, and that’s a good thing. Hopefully more information will come out that sheds more light on government spying programs and that will help us come up with constructive solutions and reforms.
What can we expect to see in terms of campaigns in the near future? Do you expect that the leak will make major strides possible in your work?
Levy: The leak has woken up millions, many of whom for the first time are seeing how their rights have been systematically stripped away. The more activated people get, the more likely we are to enact changes that provide real privacy protections.