In the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency indiscriminately collecting data related to U.S. citizens’ phone calls, as well as information about the Internet activity of foreign citizens, a consortium of tech companies and privacy watchdog groups is calling on Congress to put a stop to the programs.
The group, called Stop Watching Us, includes Mozilla, Reddit and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all based in the Bay Area. It says that the “revelations, if true, represent a stunning abuse of our basic rights.”
The group is calling for citizens to sign a letter to Congress asking it “to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.” It’s also calling for the Patriot Act and other national security statutes to be reformed so that they cannot be interpreted to allow this type of blanket monitoring.
Meanwhile, Web giants Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft have asked the government for permission to reveal more about the classified requests for user data sanctioned under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
KQED’s Stephanie Martin spoke Tuesday with Alex Fowler, who helped spearhead the Stop Watching Us initiative. Fowler is the chief privacy officer of Mozilla, a nonprofit organization that created the popular Firefox Web browser. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:
STEPHANIE MARTIN: This coalition came together within a matter of days …
MOZILLA’S ALEX FOWLER: Many of us were in New York City attending a conference that brings together all of the nation’s leading digital activists and campaigners, and the news started breaking about the leaks and the NSA programs. And literally many of the groups there ran for the hallways and we really just didn’t stop until we launched it.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: President Obama says he’s comfortable with the balance that the government is striking between privacy and security, and a Pew survey this week found that the majority of Americans are basically OK with the government tracking their phone records if it protects their security. How convinced are you that you can galvanize people around this issue in this post-9/11 era?
ALEX FOWLER: I don’t think we really have a clear view of where the public is on this yet. The numbers are quite close, and the number that’s being cited as a majority is really focused on the part about surveillance of telephone conversations. But a majority of those who were polled said they are not comfortable with their online communications being monitored. I think when people learn the facts they will be outraged, and this is not something that they’re going to be comfortable with.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: Earlier we spoke with a former SEC official who said there’s a great deal of tension between tech companies’ business models, their public personas and their legal obligations …
ALEX FOWLER: These companies are being pulled in three directions. And therefore whenever they make statements, or their executives make statements, it’s difficult to try and walk that fine line between all three of those.
I think that they’re doing the best they can with a difficult situation in terms of what they’re allowed to say. However, the very social contract that our tech firms are based on is really one of sharing information. To my mind, the threats of electronic surveillance go right to the heart of that contract, and if users can’t trust that these organizations can be accountable for the information they share with these organizations, then I think we see a tremendous erosion in trust and actually of the viability of some of these businesses.
Today, the director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, defended the surveillance programs in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He told the panel that the information collected from the program had helped prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks.