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How To Pick Your Battles In The War Against Transparency

Are you worried about Barack Obama reading all your emails and listening to all your phone calls? Beefing up your privacy settings is one thing, but fighting in the greater war to protect your rights is another. Here’s how to get started.

While you were eating lunch at your desk on Wednesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) scored a serious victory in its decades-long battle for government transparency. Perhaps as a result of the recent revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on you, a federal judge decided that at least some of the decisions from FISA court should be made public. FISA, of course, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 30-year-old law that enables the government to spy on American citizens, among other things. Just over six months ago, Obama renewed the FISA Amendments Act, a post-9/11 era update to the original law that makes that sort of domestic snooping even easier for the Feds, but now it looks like the judicial system will be putting the smack down on the government’s limitless access to your deepest darkest secrets.

At least that’s what the EFF would like to see happen. The San Francisco-based nonprofit is enjoying a moment in the limelight, so to speak, with news of the NSA’s incessant spying and the executive branch’s unapologetic stance on potentially deceiving the American people. Like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) before it, the EFF isn’t fighting these battles for the attention or the glory. It’s fighting them based on the simple principle that the digital frontier should open up opportunities for greater freedom, not shut them down.

The EFF isn’t confused about who’s at fault, either. It’s the Obama administration. “The fact we have a secret law governing surveillance activity is the fault of the executive branch,” David Sobel, the EFF’s lead counsel on the FISA case, told Gizmodo. “The FISA court casts a shroud over everything it does. This week the court said that’s not OK.”

So hooray! The NSA shouldn’t be reading your emails because the courts say this scale of secrecy isn’t cool. Right?

Not so fast. The fact of the matter is that all branches of the government are still fighting the War on Terror — whatever that means — and the sort of snooping that the NSA’s been caught doing is entirely legal thanks, in part, to the suite of counterterrorism laws passed by the Bush administration and renewed by Obama. And it’s the War on Terror that makes so many Americans complicit in things like heavy-handed, domestic surveillance, because who wants more terrorist attacks? Who cares if one or two or 10 civil rights get stomped on in order to prevent another 9/11 from happening?

The EFF certainly cares, and so do dozens of other companies that are leading a movement imperatively named “Stop Watching Us.” The movement, launched just a couple of days after the news of the Verizon wiretapping and NSA PRISM program broke, aims to coerce this country’s leaders into taking a long hard look at itself and its surveillance programs. Led by Mozilla, the EFF and dozens of others, the supporters of Stop Watching Us looks not unlike the cast of characters from the anti-SOPA battle a couple of years ago. In a form letter to Members of Congress, the organisation says it’s “calling on Congress 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.” Sobel from the EFF said that “public accounting” process should look something like the 9/11 Commission or the 1975 Church Commission that ultimately inspired the need for FISA. “It’s probably not a bad idea to have a similar body, almost 40 years later, look back and see how it’s all worked out,” he said.

This is not a new request coming from the EFF. The organisation has been screaming for increased transparency from the government for years, especially in the digital arena, but only now can the organisation enjoy the luxury of widespread public support and, more importantly, comprehension of the issues at stake. Folks like Camille François, an independent cyber security research who’s worked for everybody from Google to DARPA, certainly feel like now is moment to have a real public debate about civil rights and transparency in the digital age.

“Should there be a balance between privacy and security? Sure,” François said in an interview earlier this week. She went on to explain how issues like privacy are often chalked up to be internet issues when they’re actually not exclusive to the internet at all. Similarly, things like cyber security are often associated with the War on Terror, when really we should be thinking about them in the framework of the Constitution. “As long as this is about terrorists,” she said, “this is going to be a fake debate.”

So let’s get real. If you’re upset about the NSA’s snooping habits there are three things you can do about it.

Number one, you can stop acting so surprised. The laws that let the government spy on you have been around for a long time — you probably just didn’t know about them. It’s not even entirely correct to call it “spying” since these surveillance tools are simply built into our telecommunications system.

Two, you can join a movement like Stop Watching Us. No big commitment needed. Just send some letters to lawmakers which is an exercise in democracy that you should be doing every week not once a decade.

Three, you can charge up to the front lines. Depending on your background, nonprofits like the EFF and the ACLU always need bright young (and old) minds to fight the good fight. Like François suggested, the issues at stake aren’t just internet issues or civil rights issues or anything so specific. They’re human issues that affect not only Americans but world citizens as well. So if that law degree is sitting in your home office gathering dust, now is a good time to clean it off and put on your Johnny Do-good hat.

It won’t happen next week or even next year, but at some point in the not-too-distant future, these transparency and privacy issues will bubble up to the Supreme Court, where a precedent must be set. If you care at all about the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, you will have picked a side by then. It’s not going to be a pretty fight. But it’ll be a fight worth winning.