Interview: StopWatching.Us on the Snowden Leaks

Sina Khanifar, one of the founders of StopWatching.Us talks about mass surveillance

The Snowden leaks have triggered a lot reactions from all over the world. One of the most vocal groups that have taken a stance against what the National Security Agency has been doing has been StopWatching.Us.

One of the coalition’s founders, Sina Khanifar, a well-known activist, has agreed to talk to Softpedia about StopWatching.Us, Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks.

Softpedia: Let’s start with the basics. Why did you start StopWatching.Us?

Sina Khanifar: We were at a conference in New York, which is an activists’ conference, called Personal Democracy Forum, and it was during that event that news broke about the very first Snowden stories. When that happened there were two or three activists, one was Josh Levy for Free Press and then myself, and finally Alex Fowler from Mozilla and we gathered together and decided we needed to do something about this, to react in some way.

It was in New York right that a bunch of activists were in the same place at the same time, so we started StopWatching.Us and we took it from there.

Softpedia: You managed to get together a lot of companies and a lot of big names. Do you plan to add more, have more big corporations shown an interest in this?

Sina Khanifar: We have been reaching out to the big companies, but we continue to add medium sized companies, but the really big companies like Facebook, Google; those guys have been a bit slower to jump on, but they are getting there.

We’re getting closer to seeing these guys, even if not as a direct part of StopWatching.Us, but independently pushing towards doing more reform on that sort of mass surveillance.

We talk with them regularly, but a company that big takes a while to take action.

Softpedia: There have been some steps taken by these companies in regards to this matter...

Sina Khanifar: Yes, small steps. For example, none of them have pushed for the block on … There’s a particular bill now, the Sensenbrenner bill, and we’ve been pushing that bill quite hard and trying to get all the organizations that are part of the group to push for that bill to pass, but they (the big companies) haven’t come out and explicitly supported that bill yet.

Thing is that the sort of things like taking very concrete actions and using the very big lobbying acts to push for particular action in Congress hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will.

Softpedia: For the latest rallies, StopWatching.Us melded with Restore the Fourth. Are there any more rallies coming up?

Sina Khanifar: We don’t have any rallies planned for the moment, I don’t know what Restore the Fourth’s plans are next, but there’s a Data Privacy Day that happens in January; I’m not sure if there’s going to be any event happening around that, but we’re not planning any big rallies at the moment.

Softpedia: Has there actually been any reaction from the government following the rallies?

Sina Khanifar: Well, yes. At the last rally we had members of Congress there, we had Justin Amash, who sponsored the Amash amendment. The organizations that were part of this, like ACLU, are constantly in touch with Congressmen and their representatives and their staff and we definitely talk to them regularly and we have been coordinating with them, particularly for example with the Sensenbrenner bill.

Softedia: One of the biggest fears Snowden has is that nothing is going to change about mass surveillance and everything else they’ve been doing. Do you think anything positive will happen considering the Obama’s administration attitude towards it?

Sina Khanifar: There are things that have happened more quickly on the technical side about a lot of the ways the NSA has built up its infrastructure over time – the companies that they have been working with, the way they have been collecting data, between secure data servers of companies such as Google and Yahoo. A lot of companies have taken action to mitigate that ability and Google has been using SSL between their servers to prevent the NSA from getting access there. There are lot of things that have happened from the enterprise side of things.

But, on the government side… First, you can be damn sure the NSA is being very careful about a lot of the things that they do. Just the review in terms of tapping Angela Merkel’s phone – we know that was ended in response to the Snowden leaks in the summer of 2013. So they’re already scaling back just because they are now aware the public is watching what they are doing.

They’re already very careful but it remains to be seen if there is going to be any change coming from the Congress. The Snowden stories continue to come out and they’re not going to be out of the news cycle anytime soon.

Softpedia: There’s the Pardon Edward Snowden petition on the White House site. They promised they were going to finally answer it earlier this week. What do you think the answer is going to be?

Sina Khanifar: I think it’s going to be a pretty weak answer, to be honest; I don’t think it’s going to be a very meaningful one. It’s probably going to be something of all the harm Snowden has done and it will probably continue on the official line.

Sofpedia: Talking of which, do you think the leaks have done any damage in terms of National Security?

Sina Khanifar: There’s so little evidence that the sort of surveillance the NSA has been doing has led to any decrease or prevention in any terrorist act whatsoever, so it seems very unlikely to me that it’s going to have any real impact on their day-to-day operations and their ability to prevent terrorism. The CIA and the FBI and the NSA will continue to do what they’ve been doing.

I don’t think the leaks have done any real meaningful harm, other than to the organizations and to their ability to hire. The NSA trying to hire anyone right now must be the hardest job in the world because every single employee is being asked the “Hey, are you reading my email? “Are you listning my phone calls?” It makes it very hard for them as an institution to go on.

Softedia: The United Nations passed a bill that makes mass surveillance a violation of the human right of privacy. Is that going to impact the US in any way?

Sina Khanifar: It’s one more hit against them and shows the international community is really unhappy about this. The resolution itself reaffirms the human right to privacy, it’s not exactly the strongest language. I don’t’ think it will have a big impact on its own.

Softedia: What are your future plans for StopWatching.Us?

Sina Khanifar: One of the big things is that the coalition is doing some of the backend work to create to plan future events a little more carefully – having a rally around particular moments with it being more deliberative and planning what sort of actions we’re going to be taking in response to different legislative things and opportunities for more activism. It’s just a matter of figuring out what it’s going to be more effective.

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