Senator Cantwell, please co-sponsor the USA Freedom Act

Here’s a recap of our meeting this morning with Senator Cantwell’s staffer to ask Senator Cantwell to co-sponsor the USA Freedom Act, which aims to curtail the illegal activities of the NSA.

Seven of us attended, three Seattle Privacy founders, and four other people brought together by Free Press.

It was a curious group. Two of us had direct experience with performing surveillance or sharing data with the NSA, two had deep knowledge of the East German surveillance state experience, one of us was an immigrant rights activist who addressed the disproportionate impact of oppressive technologies on already marginalized populations, and four of us currently work for three Very Large Tech Companies with offices in our area (though we weren’t representing those employers, of course).

During an hour’s conversation, we covered a number of the toxic effects of surveillance: the chilling of free speech, the undermining of the American private sector in tech, the hollowing out of civil society and the poisoning of even the most intimate familial relationships by suspicion and fear, the potential for blackmail of people in positions of power, the use of military technologies against civilian populations, to name a few.

We talked about the well-documented attempted blackmail of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., zero-day exploits, the revered, and compromised, standards body NIST, Guantanamo and indefinite detention. We dug into the history of the Clipper Chip and the TIA program, and how the American people have repeatedly rejected programs of this type, only to have the democratic process circumvented by security agencies. We even talked a little bit about how DHS funding of the Alki cameras allowed SPD to elude local oversight (had there been any). (Unaccountably I think we missed mentioning the assault on the free press.)

I think I might even have said something about how the whole endeavor was unAmerican.

The staffer’s questions were smart and pointed. We left him with a 1-pager on the USA Freedom Act, asking Sen. Cantwell to sign on as a co-sponsor and take a leadership role in promoting the bill. We got the expected and natural, “We’ll get back to you” response, but it was still very heartening. I for one felt like I’d finally gotten to say some things that I feel VERY strongly about to someone who is actually in a position to potentially do something about them.

One interesting moment was when the staff person asked us, “How do you respond to someone who says, ‘I don’t care, I don’t have anything to hide, if it makes us safer, great!’ (basically)”. He implied that he hears that a LOT.

And it’s a really tough question to answer succinctly and in a way that’s relevant to the person who asks that sort of question. I’m hoping that our note taker got other people’s responses down, because I sort of zoned out formulating my own. I think a problem we run into with this question, or this attitude, is that people ask that question out of a visceral state of fear, and a longing to feel safe, and we respond from an analytical and rational and value-based point of view with evidence about whether surveillance prevents terrorism and idealistic discussions about freedom and liberties and rights and responsibilities and trade offs, etc.

It’s not that we’re wrong, it’s just that we don’t connect with the emotional starting point of the other person. I have never figured out how to “meet people where they are” with this particular question. I don’t particularly want to respond to fear by offering a different, better fear, either. If anyone has found an effective way to respond to that question, please share it widely!

Senator Cantwell’s staffer advised us to talk to the rest of the state congressional delegation and we will certainly make every effort to do so.

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