Wikimedia sues NSA for spying on all internet traffic

Today a broad group of educational, legal, human rights, and media organizations sued the NSA over what it calls "Upstream surveillance," under which, the complaint alleges, the NSA vacuums up for review all data that travels across the internet, regardless of whether that data comes from or to a specific NSA target.

Key allegations from the complaint, filed by the ACLU in federal district court in Maryland, include:

Upstream surveillance involves the NSA’s seizing and searching the internet communications of U.S. citizens and residents en masse as those communications travel across the internet “backbone” in the United States. The internet backbone is the network of high-capacity cables , switches, and routers that facilitates both domestic and international communication via the internet. (Compl. Paragraph 41)

Upstream surveillance is not limited to communications sent or received by the NSA’s targets. Rather, it involves the surveillance of essentially everyone’s communications. The NSA systematically examines the full content of substantially all international text-based communications (and many domestic ones) for references to its search terms. In other words, the NSA copies and reviews the communications of millions of innocent people to determine whether they are discussing or reading anything containing the NSA’s search terms. (Compl. Paragraph 44)

To read the whole complaint, go here.

In an NYT op-ed, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales explains the reason for the suit. Wikipedia relies on its tens of thousands of volunteer contributors around the world to expand its database of knowledge, Wales recounts, and

those volunteers discuss their work on everything from Tiananmen Square to gay rights in Uganda. Many of them prefer to work anonymously, especially those who work on controversial issues or who live in countries with repressive governments. These volunteers should be able to do their work without having to worry that the United States government is monitoring what they read and write. Unfortunately, their anonymity is far from certain because, using upstream surveillance, the N.S.A. intercepts and searches virtually all of the international text-based traffic that flows across the Internet “backbone” inside the United States. . . .

As a result, whenever someone overseas views or edits a Wikipedia page, it’s likely that the N.S.A. is tracking that activity — including the content of what was read or typed, as well as other information that can be linked to the person’s physical location and possible identity. These activities are sensitive and private: They can reveal everything from a person’s political and religious beliefs to sexual orientation and medical conditions.

Giving security cooperation between the U.S. and Egypt as an example of a context in which government surveillance is likely to chill expression based on fears of official reprisal, Wales concludes that “Pervasive surveillance has a chilling effect. It stifles freedom of expression and the free exchange of knowledge that Wikimedia was designed to enable.”

To read the whole op-ed, go here.

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