Tech giants at heart of EFF’s master plan to end mass surveillance

27 Jan 2015

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has revealed an ambitious plan to end over-zealous surveillance by the NSA, beginning with a campaign to get tech firms to harden their systems against surveillance or tapping.

The EFF today pointed out that American citizens are protected by US law but correctly pointed out that 96pc of the world’s population who live beyond US borders are not protected from spying by the NSA.

Key to the plan is allying US advocacy efforts with policy.

The EFF described the plan as part of a multi-year battle.

At present the NSA is gathering as much data on the digital lives of people outside US borders when there is no clear proof that all this data will help stamp out the threat of terrorism or aid America’s defences.

Instead the EFF points out the freedoms and privacy of billions of people around the world are being trampled on. It is best summed up in NSA director General Keith Alexander’s approach to surveillance: “Collect it all, tag it, store it … And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

The US is being aided in its efforts by intelligence agencies around the world including Australia and the UK not to mention a large number of European countries whose moods have only been hardened by the dreadful events in Paris this month where 20 people died.

This is on top of well-honed surveillance apparatus of countries like Russia and China.

Tech companies in EFF’s sights

The EFF pointed out that mass surveillance by the NSA and its cohorts are being facilitated by technology companies, especially large ones.

It said: “These companies often have insufficient or even sloppy security practices that make mass surveillance easier, and in some cases may be actively assisting the NSA in sweeping up data on hundreds of millions of people (for example, AT&T). In other cases, tech companies may be legally compelled to provide access to their servers to the NSA (or they may choose to fight that access).”

The first part of the EFF’s master plan involves pressuring tech companies to harden their systems against NSA surveillance.

“Thanks to whistleblower evidence, we know AT&T has a secret room at its Folsom Street facility in San Francisco where a fiber optic splitter creates a copy of the Internet traffic that passes through AT&T’s networks. That splitter routes data directly to the NSA. 

“Some companies have taken things a step further and deliberately weakened or sbatoaged their own products to ‘enable’ NSA spaying.”

Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and Microsoft have denied that their servers are being accessed by the NSA’s PRISM programme, as per revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and have formed a lobby group calling on the US government to limit surveillance.

“While a start, that’s a far cry from the role companies could be playing. Tech companies also have the ability to harden their systems to make mass surveillance more difficult, and to roll out features that allow users to easily encrypt their communications so that they are so completely secure that even their service providers can’t read them. Perhaps most importantly, technology companies must categorically resist attempts to insert backdoors into their hardware or software,” the EFF said.

Global movement to end mass surveillance

The second part of the EFF’s plan is to create a movement that encourages greater use of encryption by users. It has created Surveillance Self Defense, an in-depth resource that explains encryption to people who want to safeguard their data.

The plan also encourages the creation of simpler to use secure communications tools, new laws to prevent NSA overreach and harnessing a global movement to counter mass surveillance with firm legal principles to prevent the legalising of mass surveillance around the world.

“We’re up against more than just a few elements in the American administration here,” the EFF surmised.

“We’re up against a growing despondency about digital privacy, and we’re up against the desire of spooks, autocrats, and corporations jockeying for intelligence contracts in every nation, all of whom want to shore up these surveillance powers for themselves.

“But we work side-by-side with hundreds of other organizations around the world and thousands of supporters in nearly every country. We have the amazing power of technology to protect privacy, organise opposition, and speak up against such damning violations of human rights.”

Snowden rally image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years