Support the EFF!

For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a small group of lawyers and techies who are sort of like the ACLU, but only for technology-type stuff. Because the EFF is so small, they don’t have the resources to take on every case that comes along the way the ACLU does. Consquently, they wait for the perfect case, and then kick ass. The EFF was behind the class action lawsuit over Sony BMG’s rootkits (I don’t think I ever posted the resolution of that, but the EFF won and if you bought one of these CDs, you can get some money and a way to remove them from your machine and stuff). The EFF was behind the landmark case about the broadcast flag that finally gave you the right to record what you want on your TiVo or VCR (again). They were the ones who got the electronic voting company Diebold kicked out of North Carolina for their unethical business practices and intentional security problems. The EFF are all-around awesome people!

Anyways, they’re now battling AT&T over the warrantless wiretapping thing (the ACLU is also suing AT&T, but the two cases are, at least for now, separate). At DEFCON, I got to see a panel of 5 EFF people discuss this case with the audience. AT&T has been completely assy about every point, arguing ludicrous things, such as the claim that the address of their main datacenter is a trade secret (despite the fact that it’s registered with the city of San Francisco and is in the phone book). Time after time, the judge has come down on the EFF’s side. The EFF has even managed to work around the State Secrets issues that right-wing pundits expected would bring the entire trial to a standstill (the EFF’s arguments here were amazingly clever. Post a comment if you’re interested in hearing more). Earlier this week, the judge in the ACLU’s suit ruled that AT&T must stop their practices, though they plan to appeal this to the 9th circuit court of appeals (though knowing the 9th circuit, the decision should stand). The EFF’s judge has already made a similar ruling, and by now should have decided whether AT&T can continue the wiretapping while they appeal (though I don’t know the outcome of that edit: they can continue re-edit: that was for the ACLU case. I still don’t know what happened to the motion to stay in the EFF case). As usual, Fox “News” is using intimidation and straw-man arguments to say that the ruling is the work of a foolish, activist, outsider judge. The Washington Post is taking a more reasonable, moderate stance.

In the meantime, there’s a scary bill looming on the horizon. This bill, if passed into law, would specifically legalize warrantless wiretapping, thereby stripping away all congressional oversight. Personally, I feel this is ridiculous, because FISA (the secret court that is supposed to oversee wiretaps) has never once in its entire 30-year history turned down a wiretap application. Moreover, the Arlen-Cheney bill would move the ACLU’s and EFF’s legal battles from the normal courts over to FISA, where no one would ever be able to find out what occurred or why. If you want to keep your Fourth Amendment rights and not have a chilling effect set over all of America, please, please call or write to your Congresspeople (note that that link is secure and any data you put in that form will be encrypted; yet another good thing the EFF does).

A couple minor points about the EFF: they made a very compelling argument at DEFCON against both the pro- and anti-internet neutrality proponents, similar to inferno0069‘s viewpoint. They used the obvious arguments for why net neutrality is important and must be maintained. However, they also made the point that governmental oversight of the internet can be just as problematic, since it implies that the government will be forced to read your internet traffic (and since the majority of the world’s internet traffic gets routed through the US, they would be reading other countries’ traffic as well. Ideally, we can have internet neutrality without needing to regulate or legislate that.

I’ve also started looking into Freenet, which is a way of distributing files and viewing websites with security, anonymity, and plausible deniability (and which the EFF strongly supports). If nothing else, using it will help support the people in China attempting to speak out against their government and leaking the evidence about the Chinese death camps and other persecution of the Falun Gong. Some of you might remember a CS colloquium talk on Freenet several years ago. At the time, the audience (particularly Prof. O’Neill) argued with the speaker that Freenet makes copyright abuse trivial. However, their website makes the interesting observation that to enforce a copyright, you need to monitor and censor what people say/do/show, and that it is impossible to allow truly free speech and enforce the current incarnation of copyright law at the same time. If I had to pick one, I’d go with free speech, though.

Wow. That was a lot of links.

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  1. On the subject of the NSA case, it’s sort of unfair to compare the Fox News editorial with the Washington Post story, since one is an editorial and the other isn’t (for what it’s worth, the Fox News piece isn’t labelled as an editorial.) The Fox News actually references a Washinton Post editorial ( that is much more critical of the opinion.

    To me it seems pretty clear that the NSA program is illegal and unconstitutional, but we should hope for a better legal decision to make the case.

    • Alan says:

      Thanks for the link! How did you find it? I didn’t see a place where the Fox piece cited its sources, and the Post has put out a whole bunch of articles on the subject already. After reading throgh several of them, I decided I had better things to do than fact-check a national syndicate by brute force. I agree it would be unfair to directly compare the two articles. I was just trying to link to the articles I thought were particularly interesting: the Post article for being informative without significant political bias, and the Fox article for being astonishly galling.

      I agree that we should hope for a higher-quality legal ruling, but I can understand how that would be tough. This case seems so clear-cut to me: defendents of the wiretaps are ignoring both precedent and law in order to just make shit up (when have presidential powers which contradict Federal law ever been implicitly given? The Japanese internment camps in WW2, which were later ruled unconstitutional, is the only example I can think of). On the other hand, the EFF, at least, is using logic, precedent, and law to show that this stuff is not OK (I haven’t been following the ACLU’s suit, but I assume it’s similar). Consequently I would be very tempted to have a lot of bluster in a ruling, since one side is making such sophomoric arguments. Can anyone give me a compelling case for why this stuff should be legal? I haven’t heard one yet, and cannot yet understand why so many people support this.

      and saying that it should be law because we need such a tool is BS, because the current FISA system makes it ludicrously simple to get a wiretap; all it requires is that someone double checks that you’re not making any obvious mistakes. It has never, ever turned down a petition for a wiretap, and allows wiretaps for 3 days before the court grants approval. Moreover, the court often convenes at strange hours of the night to rush applications through quickly. The only “obstacle” FISA presents for counterterrorism people is that it forces them to check their facts and not abuse their position to spy on their exes.

      • I had read the Post editorial when it came out Friday, so I knew what Fox was talking about (they didn’t link to the story.) I don’t have time to write much, but I want to pass on a few links, too.

        This post has an interesting take on the ACLU v. NSA decision.

        And this post might address your confusion about why the administration doesn’t want to go through FISA. (I suspect you already know the answer, so you can probably skip this one, but it is interesting analysis nonetheless.)

        • Alan says:

          Thanks for these links; they were wonderful! The second one has some analysis that I hadn’t seen before, but I’m almost positive it’s wrong. It seems to be implying that the government is purposely creating a chilling effect over as many forms of personal communication as possible, in the hopes of keeping terrorists (as well as normal citizens) from discussing things the government may or may not like. However, in 1965, Justice Brennan wrote in Lamont v. Postmaster General that any law that creates a “chilling effect upon the exercise of First Amendment rights” is unconstitutional. As audacious as they are, the current administration cannot willingly and deliberately go against such a definitive, landmark Supreme Court ruling, right? …right?

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