June 11th, 2013
Additional Perspectives from Mozilla:
Mitchell Baker’s post, “Total Surveillance”
Ben Adida’s post, “No User is an Island”
Chris Lawrence’s post, “NSA Surveillance Revelations
are a Teachable Moment”
Last week, media reports emerged that the US government is requiring vast amounts of data from Internet and phone companies via top secret surveillance programs. The revelations, which confirm many of our worst fears, raise serious questions about individual privacy protections, checks on government power and court orders impacting some of the most popular Web services.
Today Mozilla is launching StopWatching.Us — a campaign sponsored by a broad coalition of organizations from across the political and technical spectrum calling on citizens and organizations from around the world to demand a full accounting of the extent to which our online data, communications and interactions are being monitored.
What’s at stake
Whenever we share information online, there’s an intuitive risk of exposure that someone we didn’t intend to share with might access it. That’s part of using an open, highly distributed, worldwide communications medium.
But there are various levels of exposure.
- There’s using a service where you interact with friends, look for new employment opportunities or just play a game, where these activities are logged by the service.
- There’s enabling geolocation on a mobile app so it can personalize your experience, thereby providing the app with data on your movements.
- There’s the unintended consequence of over-sharing on a social network.
- Then, there are more serious levels of exposure — like governments, law enforcement or intelligence agencies gaining access to our private data stored in the cloud, logs created by our Internet service providers and other companies who track things about us.
The first three are pretty well understood and users are able to take some steps to learn about these data practices through their experience using them or by referring to privacy policies and terms of service. Technology has also been getting better at providing additional controls and transparency. Mozilla, for instance, provides tools like Do Not Track, Persona and the Collusion Add-on for Firefox, among others.
However, exposures resulting from government-sponsored online surveillance are entirely separate from whether we choose to share information and what those sites say they will or will not do with our data. That’s because, at least in the US, these companies are required to respect a court order to share our information with the government, whether they like it or not. Mozilla hasn’t received any such order to date, but it could happen to us as we build new server-based services in the future.
There are a number of problems with this kind of electronic surveillance. First, the Internet is making it much easier to use these powers. There’s a lot more data to be had. The legal authority to conduct electronic surveillance has grown over the past few years, because the laws are written broadly. And, as users, we don’t have good ways of knowing whether the current system is being abused, because it’s all happening behind closed doors.
When we look back at the public response to SOPA/PIPA, two Congressional anti-piracy bills, where Mozilla and other organizations asked the public to get involved, we were blown away by the response. Hundreds of thousands of people contacted their representatives with concerns over the potential impact to the Web. We saw the same thing with ACTA in the EU. We need to rekindle that energy more than ever so our elected officials take the necessary actions to illuminate how current surveillance policies are being implemented.
Mozilla believes in an Internet where we do not have to fear that everything we do is being tracked, monitored and logged by either companies or governments. And we believe in a government whose actions are visible, transparent and accountable.
What’s unique for Mozilla is that our only commitment is to Internet users who rely on an open Web where content, imagination, trust and innovation can thrive.