Making Sense of the NSA Files: Jillian York in Conversation with Ethan Zuckerman

How can we make sense of the NSA Files and the role of mass surveillance in our world?

(this post was written with Becky HurwitzErhardt GraeffChelsea Barabas, and Heather Craig)

At the MIT Media Lab today, Ethan Zuckerman held a conversation with Jillian C. York, Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Jillian also serves on the board of directors of Global Voices Online, and on the advisory boards of R-Shief,, Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund and Internews’ Global Internet Policy Project. She regularly publishes in a wide range of international media outlets. 

Jillian tells us that public interest in state surveillance is unusually high right now, even though the NSA files are only the latest in a series of revelations about state surveillance in the last decade. Jillian starts in 2006, when Cisco Systems first came under fire in the US for its role in helping to create the Great Firewall of China. New Jersey Senator Chris Smith said that the collaboration between Cisco and the Chinese government “decapitated” citizen voices. At the time, these countries were doing targeted surveillance. Slides leaked later revealed Cisco cooperation with targeted Chinese attempts to go after Falung Gong.

Jillian also tells us about the story of the raid on the Egyptian security services during the Egyptian uprising. Many of the people there had never had an encounter with the police, and yet they found records of mass surveillance by the security forces.

One tool being used in Egypt was also being used in NSA in their collaboration with AT&T. In 2006, a whistleblower walked into the offices of the EFF to say that AT&T was providing the NSA with full access to customer phone calls. EFF sued the NSA, but there was limited public outcry at the time. Even when it was discovered that US companies were giving discounts to the Tunisian government on surveillance systems, to conduct bug testing, it didn’t become a major news issue.

Public reaction to the NSA Files has been very different. When Snowden’s leaks came out this summer, most people said, “I’ve got nothing to hide. They’re not coming after me; what do I have to worry about?” (See Moxie Marlinspike’s post. This American attitude is very different from responses elsewhere. Among US allies like Jordan and Germany, people are very worried about the surveillance being conducted by the U.S. government within their countries. Nor is it simply a case of the U.S. having information; people are about the NSA sharing data with other governments.

Surveillance has an impact on freedom of speech, not just privacy. Mass surveillance by the state is a first amendment issue as well as a fourth amendment one, Jillian tells us.

Why does free speech matter? Freedom of speech is the basis on which we address any social need. A culture of fear of “being watched” may adversely affect the ability of groups to lobby for causes that they deem valuable that go against the status quo. Jillian quotes a UN report on freedom of expression by Frank LaRue: “Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. … An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”

Ethan contrasts groups who are accustomed to being watched like political activists, with the rest of us. The emerging trend towards mass surveillance includes everyone. He asks Jillian what frightens her about mass surveillance as compared to individual surveillance?

Jillian responds by explaining she has always been open about voicing her opinion, on such issues as LGBT rights and Palestinian rights. What concerns her about more widespread survellance is the idea that something that is legal today can be deem unacceptable tomorrow.

How would Jillian respond, Ethan asks, to claims that changing values shouldn’t be a problem, since we seem to be opening up over time. We are liberalizing on LGBT issues, etc. Furthermore, most people are already using commercial systems that gather mass ammounts of information about us. What makes government surveillance different, especially if it can help fight terrorism?

Jillian responds by saying the US government hasn’t shown evidence that this surveillance has protected us against terrorist threats.

Ethan notes that Jillian seems to be going for the affirmative case, and is discriminating between a first amendment and fourth amendment issue. Why are we so willing to put ourselves out there when there is the danger of young activists having their mobile phones and data confiscated and analyzed?

Young people, Jillian says, are actually becoming more protective of their data and social networks (see also boyd and Marwick). People are starting to reduce how public their information is online. In spite of “not liking” facebook, Jillian admits to going on the site on a daily basis. With mass surveillance by the NSA, it’s not just about Jillian; she’s worried about the danger faced by people who are connected to her online.

Ethan brings up the “internet freedom dialogue,” or the notion that the internet opens up avenues for dialogue and opens up closed societies. The U.S. State Department has taken on the issue of internet freedom and broadband.

Jillian talks about the Open Tech Fund summit, which hosted a conversation about what can be done to stymie the trends towards mass surveillance. The overarching theme that came out was that open source technolgies are one of the most promising modes of protection against over zealous surveillance.

Ethan asks are people even going to believe in open source technology anymore, when there now appear to be vulterabilities in random number generators? The US has had the advantage over time of controlling internet governance both in terms of de facto rulemaking and corporate connections. Where does the US stand now?

Jillian says we are at a really important moment now with Brazilians reacting to the NSA and Snowden revelations and wanting to create their own rules and separate technologies to not have to go through US mediation. We are seeing more and more countries thinking about cutting their citizens off from a connection with U.S. companies. The problem with this is that the U.S. has the best intemediary protections for free speech (protection of intemediary platforms like Facebook regarding content posted on those platforms).

Ethan adds that people who care about internet governance find themselves stuck with the U.S. Many of them don’t tend to want the U.S. to run the world. At the same time, if the UN or international bodies were to take it over, there would be much more influence from countries like Russia and China that carry out mass censorship online. Beyond that, are corporations likely to stand up against surveillance? he asks.

Jillian concedes, “Probably not.” She reminds us that China and Russia are still two of the world’s biggest offenders. We look at what they do around Syria on the UN Security Council and that’s what we can expect of them in terms of internet governance. The way they are surveilling citizens is indicative of the direction they are going in their perspective on the internet.

Ethan asks us to imagine what would happen if Brazil decided to store all Brazilian’s data in country. On one hand, the information would be safe from the NSA. On the other hand, it would be difficult to do so without cutting Brazil off from the rest of the Internet. Furthermore, it might expand the likelihood of censorship for Brazilians.

Jillian doesn’t have recommendations for the Brazilian government, but she does have ideas for Brazilian citizens. She emphasizes the value of choices: tools that integrate security as part of the design like MailPile, which is based on PGP. PGP is not the easiest tool to use, however it may be assumed to be the most secure tool around right now. It is complicated and it is difficult for people to adopt. We need to develop tools that integrate high-quality security but also value good design and easy access.

Ethan asks: are we safe if we get everyone to use strong encryption?

Jillian responds that if everyone uses end-to-end encryption, it does become harder to carry out mass surveillance.

Let’s imagine a pessimistic situation, Ethan asks. Let’s imagine a point where everyone’s using these technologies. Even if you have your act together, it sounds as if there are enough hackers working for the NSA targeting individual systems that if they want your hard drive, they’ve got your hard drive.

In this context, how do we still talk to activists? Both Ethan and Jillian work with people who would be in real trouble if their governments foundout what they were doing. What do we say to people who are investigating corruption in countries that the NSA could be sharing data with?

Jillian says that activists are starting to have these kids of conversations offline. Organizing with technology is not always the right answer. At the moment, Jillian is creating educational materials that enable to people to evaluate their threat level.

What can we in this room do, asks Ethan. If we’re upset about a culture of mass surveillance in the US, an issue with implications for everyone in the world– how can we channel that anger? Jillian thinks we need to tackle it from all sides:

  • use end to end encryption
  • fund privacy by design tools
  • fight it in the courts (EFF’s specialty)
  • the policy path (calling up representatives): Jillian believes the stagnation in Washington around these issues is because we aren’t doing enough, and could make progress mobilizing more representatives who are on the fence
  • public education around the use of encryption

Ethan thinks that the US doesn’t have a sense of how badly the NSA revelations are being taken internationally. We’re also starting to see Google and others say that they’re outraged about the situation. Ethan doesn’t think we’ve figured out how to have the discussion on the tradeoffs between security and privacy. It’s hard to balance security against freedom of expression and privacy? Though Ethan asserts that there is clearly some balance between those interests. But what is the margin gain versus living in a moment of mass surveillance.

This discussion is hard because we tend to discuss it in extremes. We’ve moved into the era of mass surveillance, but we don’t yet know how to talk about this change.

Jillian talks about Necessary & Proportionate, a document that governments and organisations can sign that affirms 13 common principles for addressing questions of security and privacy:

  • legality
  • legitimate aim
  • necessity
  • adequacy
  • proportionality
  • competent judicial authority
  • due process
  • user notification
  • transparency
  • public oversight
  • integrity of communications and systems
  • safeguards for internal cooperation
  • safeguards against illegitimate access


Chris Peterson: The revelations suggest that the NSA has been really incompetent about their work. To what extent is abject incompetence a good critique of the NSA?

Jillian: When we look back on the history of how the U.S. State Department has done security, where we’ve seen quite a few bungles, which is probably gernalizable to other departments in the government as well. However, only one abuse of power by the NSA has been made public, LoveINT, where US government employees were spying on their love interests. Jillian thinks we can expect to see more revelations.

Ethan suggests that it’s as much overreach as incompetence. Because the budget records are secret, we haven’t known the rate of growth of the NSA. When what whatever is proportional is what’s necessary to achieve the task, it becomes a runaway bureaucracy. And bureaucracies are incredibly vulnerable to whistleblowers.

Someone on Twitter about EFF’s perspective on bitcoin.

Jillian says that EFF accepts bitcoin donations. Her personal perspective is that we haven’t gotten to the real potential of what bitcoin could bring about, and that EFF doesn’t have a clear position on bitcoin. Ethan thinks it’s really interesting to see what people think is the silver bullet. He says he came out of a generation of cyperpunks who thought that encryption was a silver bullet. Is there now a sense that an untraceable currency may be the new silver bullet? The Silk Road raid by the FBI puts that view into question.

Ivan Sigal from Global Voices asks: The NSA is designed to protect against terrorism. Have we lost sight of the true causes of terrorism and stopped accounting for this in the debate? Are you seeing a tendency for terrorism measures to slide to different topics other than terror?

Jillian responds that we’re now seeing the U.S. government go beyond targeting suspected terrorists to target people who build secuirity tools, people like Jacob Appelbaum and Moxie Marlinspike, who speak publicly about the expetrience of being targeted. Jillian thinks that the people who are being detained are those with incredibly good security pracrtices. She wonders if the rest of us who may also be considered potential targets might be not detained because we are more easily surveilled.

Ethan wonders if we’re unable to draw the line between culturally sensisitve censorship/surveillance practices and those that simply encroach on our privacy because we still haven’t figured out how to diebate the promise and consequences of big data.

Question from the audience: Would you rather be spied on by the government or by private companies?

Jillian notes that you have a choice with companies but can’t choose your government. Ethan points out that they are fundamentally different in that governments have armies and Google does not.

All the same, it’s often difficult to leave a commercial product. Jillian feels that cutting herself off from social networks would be like cutting people out of her life.

Alice Weiss asks how to refocus these conversations on what we want to change about society, rather than just changing technology.

Ethan shares advice that Alaa Abd El-Fattah gave him after a workshop Ethan led on anonymous blogging. Change only happens when people are willing to stand up, Alaa said; anonymity lessens our chance to create change. Despite this, Ethan notes that mass surveillance of the NSA style isn’t focused on individuals. It includes all the people close to a person: Ethan’s family, his graduate students, his colleagues.

Jillian agrees: network mapping is a big part of what is being done right now. Consider, for example, the New York City police department’s surveillance on mosques, collecting information on everyone who visits or prays there. If that includes network information, it will include families linked to the organisations.

Ethan asks, how do we get over apathy? When faced with such bleak circumstances, why should we still care about this?

Jillian thinks we need to look beyond this single issue and think about the world that we want. She believes that we have reached a point of global awakening in the past few years about the need to change the status quo. What keeps her optimistic is the fact that we are in communication and learning about new people doing great things around the world. Friendships around the world with people that are aiming at a shared vision give her hope. While it’s not time to stop talking about the NSA, it is also time to move past this single issue to talk about the world we want to create.