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EFF: Campus Activism Against NSA Spying is Growing Fast

April 25, 2014 by  

This piece, written by Electronic Frontier Foundation activist April Glaser, originally appeared on the foundation’s website on April 25.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been on the road, traveling to cities and towns across the country to bring our message of digital rights and reform to community and student groups.

And while we had the tremendous opportunity to talk about our work and our two lawsuits against the National Security Agency, the best part of the trip was learning about all of the inspiring and transformative activism happening everyday on the local level to combat government surveillance and defend our digital rights.

We met students and professors in Eugene, Ore., who held a campus-wide digital rights event at the University of Oregon. There, students had the opportunity to unpack their campus privacy policy, download and learn freedom-enhancing software, and explore their library’s open access initiative.

We traveled to Cambridge, Mass., where we met local activists and students ready to join the fight against draconian computer crime laws and raise awareness about the effects of mass surveillance on student innovation and academic freedom. In one particularly inspiring meeting with MIT’s Student Information Processing Board, we talked about how student innovators have long felt rudderless in the face of poorly written and outdated computer crime laws.

Most recently, a student was issued a subpoena for a project developed with fellow MIT classmates at a local hackathon. The students’ project, called TidBit, demonstrates how a client’s computer can mine for Bitcoin as an alternative to website advertising. The project was designed for a hackathon (where it won an award for innovation) and was never actually implemented, but instead explicitly marked as a proof of concept. Yet the State of New Jersey issued a subpoena trying to get info about the project and suggesting the TidBit developers had violated the law. EFF is helping the students fight back by moving to quash the subpoena. The TidBit case is the latest in a string of student confrontation with computer crime laws at MIT over the years.

We remember how Aaron Swartz was charged under the grossly unfair and outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And we remember when the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority ordered that MIT students cancel their scheduled presentation at DEFCON about vulnerabilities that they found in Boston’s transit fare payment system, violating their 1st Amendment right to discuss their important research. The facts are clear: Student innovation is chilled by broken computer crime laws, and reform is sorely needed.

While we were in Cambridge, we participated in LibrePlanet, the annual Free Software Foundation conference. And after the conference local activists, technologists and free software enthusiasts joined us for a Free Software Foundation/EFF Speakeasy. We had the opportunity to talk about how the Free Software Foundation is one of the 22 plaintiffs in our First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles  v. NSA case, as well as what technologists can do to combat mass surveillance.

EFF also stopped in New York City to meet with students from the New School and New York University to talk about what students can do on campus to oppose NSA surveillance. And we were delighted to co-host a Students’ Speakeasy, where we chatted about ways to get active on campus with the Student Net Alliance, a growing network of people involved in campus communities that support sound Internet law and policy. Whether it’s writing a letter about how mass surveillance chills academic freedom, learning, and the need to research and discuss controversial topics; holding regular campus cryptoparties; or petitioning for better open access policies on campus, there are plenty of things that students can do join the fight to protect our digital rights.

“The Internet was born on university campuses, and universities have always been at the center of critical fights to keep the Internet free and open,” said Alec Foster, founder of Student Net Alliance. “As students, we believe in advancing policy and technology that support the free and open flow of information, and ensure our private communications are equally protected online and offline.”

It’s been a busy month! Just last week we visited Iowa, where we collaborated with the student-run Iowa State University Digital Freedom Group to put together a giant event for the campus-wide First Amendment week. More than 250 people showed up to hear about EFF’s litigation against the NSA and learn about reforms in Congress that aim to rein the NSA back within the bounds of the Constitution.

When the ISU Digital Freedom Group was trying to form on campus last year, they met serious resistance from the school’s administration who wouldn’t give them the green light because they did not want ISU students to advocate for or participate in the “secrecy network” Tor and would not permit the student group to use any “free software designed to enable online anonymity.”

But the students had not proposed that a Tor node be established on campus. Rather, they simply asked that they be able to provide a forum to “discuss, learn and practice techniques to anonymize and protect digital communication.” EFF wrote an open letter to university administrations across the country about the importance of student groups like the Digital Freedom Group that aim to discuss and learn about methods for secure and private use of the Internet.

After our tremendously successful event, the ISU Digital Student Group hosted their first cryptoparty, where campus based technologists taught about important Internet privacy tools like GPG email encryption, Tor, and Off-the-Record instant messaging. We all had a wonderful time in Ames and look forward to watching the group grow.

At EFF we are thrilled to meet more activists across the country working on the front lines to defend our digital rights. And this fight is now more important than ever. Snowden’s revelations have brought conversations about government surveillance and the right to privacy into the spotlight. Now is the time to organize for real reform. Join us.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

From the Internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense. EFF broke new ground when it was founded in 1990—well before the Internet was on most people's radar—and continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights. https://www.eff.org/

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