Academics have joined the fight against mass surveillance. Two open letters were published last month from the academic and research communities. One is signed by U.S. information security and cryptography researchers, and the other is signed by over one thousand scholars from a wide range of disciplines who work in universities all over the world.
Both letters agree: global surveillance conducted by U.S. and European governments undermines democracy, the global economy, academic freedom, and our most depended-upon technologies, paradoxically making us all less safe. The signatories of both letters urge that intelligence agencies and national security policies be subject to the kind of transparency and public scrutiny that leads to democratic accountability, underlining the fact that what’s at stake with NSA spying boils down to our—the public’s—fundamental relationship with our government.
The signatories represent many of the most respected thinkers in security research and the ethical application of technology, including Hal Abelson, one of the founders of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation; Bruce Schneier, a member of EFF’s advisory board; and Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom. The signatories are some of the most celebrated experts in national security in the world, and they say that it is possible to effectively protect people from terrorist threats without dumbing-down our most relied upon technologies.
It’s no surprise that the letter from U.S. security researchers condemns NSA efforts to insert vulnerabilities into our technology. “Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals,” reads the letter. “But we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life.” If it’s easier for the government to hack into a system, it’s easier for anyone to break in, breach security, and cause serious damage.
This is why cryptographers in academia and industry alike were livid after leaks revealed BULLRUN, the NSA’s project that seeks to intentionally weaken security to ease NSA access to our electronic communications and transactions. Computer security should be encouraged to operate at the highest level available in order to actually keep our online activities secure, not at levels most convenient for NSA exploits.
The other letter is a global call from over one thousand scholars from over two dozen countries. Due to the extreme over-reach of global surveillance conducted by U.S. and European governments, these academics have all witnessed the same human rights abuses that result from mass spying all over the world, despite coming from seemingly disparate situations. Their letter endorses the 13 International Necessary and Proportionate Principles, a project championed by EFF that spells out how human rights law applies to government surveillance and demands an end to mass spying. The fight to bring the surveillance programs of governments around the world within the bounds of human rights law is an international effort, and we are heartened to see that academics have embraced this global strategy.
One aspect of NSA spying that the academics did not include in their letter is how mass surveillance chills free speech. Surveillance of communications chills communication: when we know that someone is collecting data about our telephone calls, emails, and text messages, we’re not going to say what we would say otherwise or speak as much about anything. This chilling effect corrodes academic freedom and free speech on campus, thus weakening the cornerstones of a healthy learning community.
If you’re an academic or student, we invite you to compose a letter about how the revelations of government mass surveillance have affected academic life and learning on your campus. Gather signatures from across departments, fields, student groups, and professors. Then share your letter with us. We’ll help you to deliver it to your elected representatives, and add it to our growing list of letters from students and academics across the globe who are making themselves heard loud and clear: it’s time for States to prioritize the protection of everyone’s fundamental human rights to privacy and free speech. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your letter. And consult our NSA-spying resource center and the 13 International Principles if you need help getting started.