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Land of the free?

Interview: Monika Griebeler, Washington, D.C.October 27, 2013

"We are the people, defend the Bill of Rights!" At the Stop Watching Us rally, communication scientist Lindsay H. Hoffman spoke with DW about changes in the land of the free and the current American mindset.

Lindsay H. Hoffman, Foto: Monika Griebeler, DW
Image: DW

DW: The Patriot Act was signed 12 years ago, and today (26.10.2013) hundreds of people are demonstrating in Washington, D.C. and other cities against the mass surveillance revelations of the past months. Is the America of today the land of the free or the land of the observed?

Lindsay H. Hoffman: Difficult to say. Starting with WikiLeaks and now with [former National Security Agency analyst] Edward Snowden we are beginning to discover what the NSA is actually doing. Even though spying is an old business, many Americans had no idea of the extent to which it was invading their own personal lives. I think Americans are starting to become very concerned. That said, the rally here was not very well attended.

I think it's just another issue on the agenda. If you asked what Americans are most concerned about right now, they are thinking more about health care and the recent government shutdown.

Why are people suddenly so surprised by the extent of surveillance?

If you go back to the Patriot Act, Americans were very concerned about terrorism and it seemed entirely justifiable. People were not opposed to this kind of surveillance at all, they said: 'I have done nothing wrong. I have nothing to hide. Look at my information – if it helps preventing a terrorist attack, I am OK with that.' And that came along with an increased reliance on technology. People are using Facebook and Twitter and email every day. Over time it became normal to give more and more of your information away and we sort of forgot about the Patriot Act.

In addition, many Americans were under the impression that all these kinds of things were private and if you weren't doing anything wrong, there would be no reason for anyone to look at your records. So it's really the revelation that you don't have to be suspicious – and the government can still find out everything about you. I think that's what is concerning people.

US citzens protest in Washington DC against the NSA (Foto: Monika Griebeler / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo
Around 800 people gathered in Washington D.C. to protest NSA surveillanceImage: DW

And now they're starting to get upset?

Freedom obviously has a huge value for citizens in America. Any time there is a threat against individual rights, Americans will get upset about it. So, right now Americans are mostly concerned about getting spied on – even here at the rally – rather than what has come out in recent days about spying on other foreign leaders, although this is actually perhaps more troubling.

Have there been consequences?

There have been some interesting movements. There are now Internet service providers to which you don't give any of your information and you pay in cash for the connection. So they have almost no idea who you are or how to connect to you. And there are some people going back to the idea to opt out, not being online. Even some of my college students say: 'Maybe I will go off Facebook for a while.' I have never heard them discuss this before. But now some are actually quitting the social network.

Speaking of Facebook, the NSA revelations have also shown how the US can influence Internet companies. What do Americans think about the cooperation between IT companies and the government?

The initial releases of the Snowden leaks were the Verizon leaks saying that Verizon had handed over phone records to the government. And Verizon is an extremely popular mobile provider in the country. That was alarming.

What people are arguing for – also people at the rally today – is getting away from corporate sponsored software and working more toward an open source software environment, where the people own the software and own the source code. They know how it works and what information is there. People are starting to realize that they are losing control over their digital identity. There has been a movement towards going around these existing corporate structures and communicating in other ways.

US citzens protest in Washington DC against the NSA (Foto: Monika Griebeler / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo
Americans are starting to become very concerned about privacy issuesImage: DW

What options does the US government have to limit surveillance?

Transparency is the first step. Companies like Facebook and Twitter need to be very clear about their policies. But what is really necessary, I think, is a policy change. The Patriot Act needs to be reconsidered because technology has changed dramatically and what we do, how we communicate has changed so profoundly.

We have seen some legislation introduced about surveillance. However, right now there is so much going on with Obamacare and the budget that it's not a top priority. But if we keep seeing the story in the media, and polls show that this is one of the top issues, and the public is outraged enough, politicians will be forced to respond.

Would pressure from the outside, from Europe, for example, help developments inside the US?

I think most Americans are unaware of how much discontent there is in other countries and of how upset Europeans are about the surveillance. Only in the last week or so have we begun to see how this has impacted our foreign allies and our reputation. I hope the [EU] representative coming next week will make it very clear how much this defies international alliances and how there may be repercussions if the surveillance continues. If [America's] allies speak out – and [Chancellor Angela] Merkel has been very clear – things could definitely change.

What about a "no spying agreement" with allies like Germany and France?

US citzens protest in Washington DC against the NSA (Foto: Monika Griebeler / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo
Many Americans agree with the anti-NSA sentiment in EuropeImage: DW

It's a global issue – also because the Internet itself is borderless, somewhat stateless. We cannot just let nation states decide what the policies are regarding surveillance because this does cross geographical borders. However, this is also unprecedented territory. The question is: What is the governing body that should manage how our information is stored and retrieved? It's a complex issue.

Is this protest against mass surveillance uniting the nation?

Until these revelations, it was a rather unusual to be worried about spying. You would imagine this paranoid person worried that everyone is spying on him. What has happened is that it's no longer these kinds of people at these protests who are speaking out - it's the regular people who are shocked.

I don't think this is an issue that's going to unify everyone. But I found it really fascinating to see people of different ages – from people in wheelchairs to little kids – and from different backgrounds at the rally. There is no divide along these strict ideological and political lines. That is something that has made this movement unique.

Lindsay H. Hoffman is an associate professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses on the intersection of media, politics and technology.