BOSTON, Mass.—“Hey hey, ho ho, surveillance state has got to go” rang through streets from Dewey Square to Faneuil Hall as 200 Boston-area residents held a Restore the Fourth march and rally—part of a nationwide protest against government surveillance. Clandestine National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs revealed to the world by Edward Snowden, a former NSA technical contractor, triggered the protests. Snowden, a United States citizen, is currently on the run as the U.S. government seeks to extradite him under charges of leaking classified documents and theft of government property.
Many have long wondered about possibility of mass electronic surveillance programs that intercept the internet and phone data of average citizens. Ramped-up, post 9-11 security measures by the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA have come under scrutiny as groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have sued the government claiming these measures are unconstitutional.
“The last time we tried to sue over a government surveillance program we thought was unconstitutional was Amnesty v. Clapper,” explained Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty Project, “Our clients were Amnesty International, human rights workers, lawyers, journalists—people who communicate regularly with others overseas in sensitive situations they don’t want the government listening to.”
“We sued, and the government said, ‘You don’t have a standing because you can’t prove that your clients were spied on.’ And, of course, we didn’t,” Crockford continued, “because surveillance is secret. So we said, ‘Okay, give us the evidence.’ They replied, ‘No,’ and the federal judge agreed with the government. That’s why the case didn’t even get to the merits of the question. The merits of the question is when you address the actual legal question, ‘Is this surveillance unconstitutional?’”
Clapper v. Amnesty International did indeed end with the Supreme Court ruling that Amnesty International and the other plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to authorize surveillance without probable cause or a warrant.
“This new lawsuit is so important because we have the evidence to prove that the ACLU is spied on,” Crockford said, “We have the court order showing that in fact that the ACLU, because it’s a client of Verizon, was sucked into this routine order, and that’s really exciting, because that means we’ll actually get to the merits of the question.”
Groups from the Boston area—including Chelsea Neighbors United to End the War—garnered cheers from the crowd. One activist from Chelsea said, “The present deportations under the Obama administration, started under [President George W.] Bush, are getting worse, and now there’s unprecedented surveillance and oppression on the home front.”
The Restore the Fourth movement started on the online community Reddit, and it included over 100 American cities—including Chicago, Miami, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. MassOps was one of the organizers of the Boston protest.
Activist Matthew Krawitz said that corporate enterprises were also at fault for their involvement. “Verizon, Google, Apple, Sprint, AT$T, Microsoft, the list goes on and on—all of these companies actively cooperated with the government under the auspices of security policy, but in reality what they’ve done is enable the government to hinder and harass peaceful activists and American citizens. As a result, if a law-enforcement officer decides they don’t like you or like the way you sound or look, they can type your name into the database and figure out which crime to charge you with.”
A heavy police presence permeated the protest. Police officers covering the protest declined to comment on why the rally had drawn so many police officers and directed reporters to the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Public Information. While the protest continued, a number of law-enforcement officers videotaped and took photos of the protesters. Repeated vocal attempts to ask what they were doing went unanswered. The following interaction occurred between a protester and a police officer—identified only as Sergeant 509—as SPARE CHANGE NEWS waited for comment.
“So you’d be alright with cameras in your bedroom? And them passing around videos? . . . Is there a problem with us protesting here?” the protestor asked.
“Well, if it were any other day but the Fourth celebration,” Sergeant 509 responded.
“So yes. But it wouldn’t be that way on other days?”
“So is it just holidays that are not okay for you?”
“Where are you from?”
“Then why aren’t you all in Watertown? You know, how many people do you think here are actually from Boston? I’ve been in protest investigation and technology for eighteen years. I can tell you right now that 80 percent of the people at this rally aren’t from Boston. So why do they come here?”
The protester responded that people were concerned and wanted to speak out. He then asked if the police officer would have supported the United States’ initial protesters, the tea partiers of 1773 that helped inspired the American Revolution. The officer responded that these are different times, and that he is a registered member of the present-day Tea Party and a Republican.
When approached by SPARE CHANGE NEWS for an interview, Sergeant 509 said he didn’t know of the newspaper. When a SPARE CHANGE NEWS reporter explained that the paper is distributed by the homeless, the police officer said, “Well, I’m not homeless.” He directed SPARE CHANGE NEWS to the Bureau of Public Information for further comment.
The Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Public information failed to return multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Meanwhile, on the world stage, “The Guardian” continued to publish NSA PowerPoint slides on July 5, revealing documents that outline how the NSA manages some of the data from its surveillance operations. According to the documents, the agency destroys communications it has collected from U.S. citizens unless those communications are encrypted, in which case the information is stored in bulk for an indefinite period of time as the agency works to crack the encryption. Using specific anonymity or encryption services can also prompt the agency to store U.S. citizens’ data indefinitely, according to the documents.
“I’ve been following the Edward Snowden thing,” said a young passerby who was watching the protest, “I guess it’s kind of an embarrassment for [President Barack] Obama, but other than that, we don’t really know what the policy is, that’s the problem.”
The NSA continues to deny that it has violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Some protestors feel differently about the constitutionality of the NSA’s surveillance programs, a sentiment perhaps best summed up by the words on one placard: “1776 or 1984: You decide.”
–Sarah L. Betancourt