Friday, February 28, 2014

Fighting Back Against NSA Spying


By Reginald Johnson

        After a successful national protest earlier this month against the sweeping surveillance over Americans’ phone calls and email activity by the National Security Agency, it’s critical to keep up the pressure on Congress to rein in the spying programs.

    According to the website “The Day We Fight Back,” which promoted the Feb. 11 event of the same name, some 555,000 emails were sent to members of Congress urging them to rein in the NSA through reform legislation;  89,000 phone calls to Congress were made; some 301,000 people signed a petition demanding privacy as a human right; the website the  was shared 420,000 times on Facebook; and more than 37 million people worldwide saw the “The Day We Fight Back” banner on the website the day of the protest.

  “Together we demonstrated that activists, organizations and companies can work in unison to fight mass surveillance and laid a foundation for escalation over the months to come,” said a statement on the website following the protest.

   The statement added that the fight still has a long ways to go. “To push back against surveillance, we need to keep acting to educate and urge our representatives to take action,” it said.

   The Feb. 11 protest was organized by a coalition of civil liberties organizations, digital rights groups, companies and activists who are determined to force the government to curtail the dragnet surveillance that was exposed last year by whisteblower Edward Snowden. The former contractor for the NSA released a trove of classified documents which showed that the NSA was tracking the phone records, email communications,  social network activity and web activity of hundreds of millions of Americans and foreigners.

  Billions of records of phone calling “metadata” --- showing who made a call, to whom, how long the call was, and the location of those taking part ---- are being swept up by the government.

  According to The Washington Post, one of the papers which published the revelations made by Snowden, the NSA is also harvesting both the metadata and content of emails, web activity, social networks and chats, as part of what the agency calls “upstream collection.”

   The government claims that the NSA surveillance is both constitutional and a necessary tool in fighting terrorism.

  But civil liberties advocates claim that the NSA spying program is a clear violation of the Constitution’s guarantees of the right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

   The American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of the coalition fighting the NSA surveillance, says that the agency’s “aggregation of metadata constitutes an invasion of privacy and an unreasonable search” and is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. Also, the phone tracking program violates the First Amendment “because it vacuums up sensitive information on associational and expressive activity.”

  The ACLU is suing the government to end the spying program and have all the collected data deleted.

  According to Josh Levy, of the internet rights group Free Press, the NSA surveillance programs “attack our basic rights to connect and communicate in private, and strike at the foundations of democracy itself. Only a broad movement of activists, organizations and companies can convince Washington to restore these rights.”

    During the “Day We Fight Back” protest, people either calling or emailing their representatives in Congress were urged to tell them to support the USA Freedom Act, which would end the bulk collection of phone data by the government and make the deliberations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) --- which authorizes NSA surveillance programs --- more transparent.

   Another bill is going through Congress, offered by U.S. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., relating to the NSA. However, the bill, though offering some cosmetic reforms in the FISA process, would largely keep in place the existing NSA surveillance programs.

   Several members of the Connecticut congressional delegation were called by this reporter in the “Day We Fight Back” protest. A staff member for U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, said the congressman was still weighing whether to support the USA Freedom Act. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy also said the senator hadn’t taken a position on the bill yet.

  The position of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was clear, however. Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act, a staffer said.

   Activists see an urgency in rolling back the legal authority for the spying programs, as more and more revelations keep coming out about how extensive the government surveillance is, both in the United States and abroad.

  Recently The Guardian newspaper in the UK reported that the British spy agency GCHQ, with aid from the NSA, had intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of Internet users not suspected of wrongdoing.




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