Through a PRISM darkly: Fear of NSA surveillance is having a chilling effect on the open web

Just a few weeks ago, the secure email service Lavabit — which Edward Snowden used while corresponding with Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald about NSA leaks, ironically — shut down because of the founder’s concern about government surveillance, as did fellow email provider Silent Circle. Now, the well-respected legal discussion forum Groklaw has done the same, driven by what its founder has called the “forced exposure” of NSA surveillance. How many more web services do we have to lose before NSA chilling effects become a serious drain on the internet we all take for granted?

In his note about the closure of his secure email service, Lavabit founder Ladar Levison said that if we knew what he knows about the security of the global email system, we wouldn’t use email at all. Pamela Jones, the founder of Groklaw, said in her own closure notice that this warning started to gnaw away at her, and finally she couldn’t stomach running her web forum and email list any longer, because of a fear that its entire contents were available to the NSA.

“The simple truth is, no matter how good the motives might be for collecting and screening everything we say to one another, and no matter how ‘clean’ we all are ourselves from the standpoint of the screeners, I don’t know how to function in such an atmosphere.”

Safety in the rule of law? Not so much

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Not only did Jones say that she couldn’t continue running Groklaw because of the fear of surveillance (especially since she has readers and subscribers around the world, and surveillance of non-U.S. citizens is even easier than it is with U.S. residents) but she said the rise of the security state actually seemed to contradict some of the reasons she started the Groklaw service in the first place, or at least to conflict with them, and that made it even more difficult to continue. As she put it:

“I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.”

Some of those who have been commenting on Jones and her decision seem to feel she is over-reacting. But is she? The PRISM documents and subsequent revelations about how much of our online behavior is being captured — either for immediate surveillance or stored in some database for future analysis — are enough to make even the biggest government supporter think twice, not to mention incidents like the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner at a British airport and the seizure of his belongings.

Who will decide to shut down next?

How much of what we value about the internet is in jeopardy because of the sheer scale of the surveillance that is going on all around us? It’s one thing to lose a secure email service or a legal discussion forum, but how long until other more mainstream services are affected? And it doesn’t have to be outright shutdowns or closures — just a series of restrictions or the gradual decline in usage by users who are (rightly) concerned about the information they are putting online or the digital cookie crumbs they are leaving behind them.
As Jones points out, the cumulative effect of a multitude of decisions like hers could have substantial repercussions for internet companies (and in fact have already done so) as well as the digital economy as a whole. How many people will want to use an e commerce solution like Facebook is said to be launching if they know every transaction will be indexed and tracked by the government or the NSA? That’s just one example. As Jones puts it:

“My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it’s possible. I’m just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can’t stay online personally without losing my humanness… if everyone did that, leap off the Internet, the world’s economy would collapse, I suppose. I can’t really hope for that. But for me, the Internet is over.”

What else can we do? We can all use secure email tools like PGP, as John Biggs of TechCrunch suggests, and refuse to use services that identify us — but even the latter restricts the available web to a tiny fraction of what we once took for granted. Perhaps all that is left is for us is to take Blake’s advice and rage against the dying of the light.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Shutterstock / Vlad Star