To commemorate the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 30th anniversary, we present EFF30 Fireside Chats. This limited series of livestreamed conversations looks back at some of the biggest issues in internet history and their effects on the modern web.

To celebrate 30 years of defending online freedom, EFF was proud to welcome NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for a chat about surveillance, privacy, and the concrete ways we can improve our digital world, as part of our EFF30 Fireside Chat series. EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn, EFF Director of Engineering for Certbot Alexis Hancock, and EFF Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia weighed in on the way the internet (and surveillance) actually function, the impact that has on modern culture and activism, and how we’re grappling with the cracks this pandemic has revealed—and widened—in our digital world. 

You can watch the full conversation here or read the transcript.

On June 3, we’ll be holding our fourth EFF30 Fireside Chat, on how to free the internet, with net neutrality pioneer Gigi Sohn. EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow once wrote, "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before." This year marked the 25th anniversary of this audacious essay denouncing centralized authority on the blossoming internet. But modern tech has strayed far from the utopia of individual freedom that 90s netizens envisioned. We'll be discussing corporatization, activism, and the fate of the internet, framed by Barlow's "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," with Gigi, along with EFF Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon and EFF Associate Director of Policy and Activism Katharine Trendacosta.

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The Internet is Not Made of Magic

Snowden opened the discussion by explaining the reality that all of our internet usage is made up of a giant mesh of companies and providers. The internet is not magic—it’s other people’s computers: “All of our communications—structurally—are intermediated by other people’s computers and infrastructure…[in the past] all of these lines that you were riding across—the people who ran them were taking notes.” We’ve come a long way from that time when our communications were largely unencrypted, and everything you typed into the Google search box “was visible to everybody else who was on that Starbucks network with you, and your Internet Service Provider, who knew this person who paid for this account searched for this thing on Google….anybody who was between your communications could take notes.”

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How Can Tech Protect Us from Surveillance?

In 2013, Snowden came forward with details about the PRISM program, through which the NSA and FBI worked directly with large companies to see what was in individuals' internet communications and activity, making much more public the notion that our digital lives were not safe from spying. This has led to a change in people’s awareness of this exploitation, Snowden said, and myriad solutions have come about to solve parts of what is essentially an ecosystem problem: some technical, some legal, some political, some individual. “Maybe you install a different app. Maybe you stop using Facebook. Maybe you don’t take your phone with you, or start using an encrypted messenger like Signal instead of something like SMS.” 

Nobody sells you a car without brakes—nobody should sell you a browser without security.

When it comes to the legal cases, like EFF’s case against the NSA, the courts are finally starting to respond. Technical solutions, like the expansion of encryption in everyday online usage, are also playing a part, Alexis Hancock, EFF’s Director of Engineering for Certbot, explained. “Just yesterday, I checked on a benchmark that said that 95% of web traffic is encrypted—leaps and bounds since 2013.” In 2015, web browsers started displaying “this site is not secure” messages on unencrypted sites, and that’s where EFF’s Certbot tool steps in. Certbot is a “free, open source software that we work on to automatically supply free SSL, or secure, certificates for traffic in transit, automating it for websites everywhere.” This keeps data private in transit—adding a layer of protection over what is traveling between your request and a website’s server. Though this is one of the things that don’t get talked about a lot, partly because these are pieces that you don’t see and shouldn’t have to see, but give people security. “Nobody sells you a car without brakes—nobody should sell you a browser without security.”  

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Balancing the Needs of the Pandemic and the Dangers of Surveillance

We’ve moved the privacy needle forward in many ways since 2013, but in 2020, a global catastrophe could have set us back: the COVID-19 pandemic. As Hancock described it, EFF’s focus for protecting privacy during the pandemic was to track “where technology can and can’t help, and when is technology being presented as a silver bullet for certain issues around the pandemic when people are the center for being able to bring us out of this.”

There is a looming backlash of people who have had quite enough.

Our fear was primarily scope creep, she explained: from contact tracing to digital credentials, many of these systems already exist, but we must ask, “what are we actually trying to solve here? Are we actually creating more barriers to healthcare?” Contact tracing, for example, must put privacy first and foremost—because making it trustworthy is key to making it effective. 

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The Melting Borders Between Corporate, Government, Local, and Federal Surveillance 

But the pandemic, unfortunately, isn’t the only nascent danger to our privacy. EFF’s Matthew Guariglia described the merging of both government and corporate surveillance, and federal and local surveillance, that's happening around the country today: “Police make very effective marketers, and a lot of the manufacturers of technology are counting on it….If you are living in the United States today you are likely walking past or carrying around street level surveillance everywhere you go, and this goes double if you live in a concentrated urban setting or you live in an overpoliced community.”

Police make very effective marketers, and a lot of the manufacturers of technology are counting on it

From automated license plate readers to private and public security cameras to Shotspotter devices that listen for gunshots but also record cars backfiring and fireworks, this matters now more than ever, as the country reckons with a history of dangerous and inequitable overpolicing: “If a Shotspotter misfires, and sends armed police to the site of what they think is a shooting, there is likely to be a higher chance for a more violent encounter with police who think they’re going to a shooting.” This is equally true for a variety of these technologies, from automated license plate readers to facial recognition, which police claim are used for leads, but are too often accepted as fact. 

“Should we compile records that are so comprehensive?” asked Snowden about the way these records aren’t only collected, but queried, allowing government and companies to ask for the firehose of data. “We don’t even care what it is, we interrelate it with something else. We saw this license plate show up outside our store at a strip mall and we want to know how much money they have.” This is why the need for legal protections is so important, added Executive Director Cindy Cohn: “The technical tools are not going to get to the place where the phone company doesn’t know where your phone is. But the legal protections can make sure that the company is very limited in what they can do with that information—especially when the government comes knocking.”

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After All This, Is Privacy Dead?

All these privacy-invasive regimes may lead some to wonder if privacy, or anonymity, are, to put it bluntly, dying. That’s exactly what one audience member asked during the question and answer section of the chat. “I don’t think it’s inevitable,” said Guariglia. “There is a looming backlash of people who have had quite enough.” Hancock added that optimism is both realistic and required: “No technology makes you a ghost online—none of it, even the most secure, anonymous-driven tools out there. And I don’t think that it comes down to your own personal burden...There is actually a more collective unit now that are noticing that this burden is not yours to bear...It’s going to take firing on all cylinders, with activism, technology, and legislation. But there are people fighting for you out there. Once you start looking, you’ll find them.” 

If you look for darkness, that’s all you’ll ever see. But if you look for lightness, you will find it.

“So many people care,” Snowden said. “But they feel like they can’t do anything….Does it have to be that way?...Governments live in a permissionless world, but we don’t. Does it have to be that way?” If you’re looking for a lever to pull—look at the presumptions these mass data collection systems make, and what happens if they fail: “They do it because mass surveillance is cheap...could we make these systems unlawful for corporations, and costly [for others]? I think in all cases, the answer is yes.”

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Democracy, social movements, our relationships, and your own well being all require private space to thrive. If you missed this chat, please take an hour to watch it—whether you’re a privacy activist or an ordinary person, it’s critical for the safety of our society that we push back on all forms of surveillance, and protect our ability to communicate, congregate, and coordinate without fear of reprisal. We deeply appreciate Edward Snowden joining us for this EFF30 Fireside Chat and discussing how we can fight back against surveillance, as difficult as it may seem. As Hancock said (yes, quoting the anime The Last Airbender): “If you look for darkness, that’s all you’ll ever see. But if you look for lightness, you will find it.


Check out additional recaps of EFF's 30th anniversary conversation series, and don't miss our next program where we'll tackle digital access and the open web with Gigi Sohn on June 3, 2021—EFF30 Fireside Chat: Free the Internet.