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Will Wiki action kill off the NSA’s dragnet surveillance?

by Josef Kafka

The fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance shows no signs of stopping any time soon, and given that there are likely to be more leaks still to come, it’s probably safe to assume this saga is a long way from over. One of the latest developments has seen a lawsuit filed against the NSA for allegedly violating US freedom laws, by the Wikimedia Foundation, the group that manages the popular online encyclopaedia.

Their legal action is co-signed by eight other organisations, and is aimed at bringing an end to the mass surveillance being carried out by the US spy agency, the NSA. In particular, the foundation said it was seeking to stop ‘upstream’ surveillance by the NSA, which focuses on communication with people outside the US. 

The action was announced in a blog post by Wikimedia Foundation executive director Lila Tretikov, who said they wanted to bring about the end of mass surveillance in order ‘to protect the rights of our users around the world’ (http://blog.wikimedia.org/2015/03/10/wikimedia-v-nsa/).

Documents released by Snowden reveal that the NSA had tapped into the internet’s backbone – a network of superfast cables linking transit points and ISPs – to gather the data. Targeting the backbone in this way was to cast a vast net that inevitably scooped up data that was unrelated to any specific target and was likely to include everyday, domestic communications. This, says Lila Tretikov, is ‘straining the backbone of democracy’ and violated the rules over what the NSA could spy on.

She added that Wikipedia was founded on freedom of expression, inquiry, and information and that by ‘violating’ users’ privacy, the spy agency was threatening the intellectual freedom that was ‘central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge’. 

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, said he hoped that the action would result in the end of the NSA’s ‘dragnet surveillance’ of all internet traffic and that surveillance eroded the ‘original promise’ of the internet, which was an ‘open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear.’

Should we be worried?

Wikipedia is one of the largest and most popular reference websites. It is accessed by hundreds of thousands of people around the world every day to find out about all kinds of stuff, as well as contribute to articles themselves. In the pre-internet days, if you wanted to find out about a nuclear reactor, for instance, you could get some general information from the local library, or from specialist publications. 

If you wanted to know how a homemade bomb was put together (research for a novel, perhaps?), you’d have found it a lot more difficult. Now, a quick online search will come up with plenty of options to choose from, including one by Wikipedia, although their post is a discussion of the issue rather than a step-by-step guide on bomb making.

‘So what?’ you might say. ‘I don’t mind if my internet activities are being snooped on, because I’m doing nothing wrong, certainly nothing illegal – only those who are up to no good have anything to worry about.’ There may be a lot of truth in that, but it’s worth remembering that while you know what your motivation is for researching bomb-making, the snoopers who are scooping up all your data don’t. 

If you’re doing a lot of this kind of research, which also includes checking out some extremist websites, you may inadvertently be creating a profile for yourself that can easily be misunderstood. So the worry is that if this inaccurate ‘profile’ exists, it can be used against you at some point in the future. Does this sound too far-fetched? Or is the former CEO of the Intel Corporation, Andrew Grove, right when he says that ‘only the paranoid survive’? Maybe we’ve all got something to fear!

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