Stop Watching Us eyes big rally against NSA surveillance (Q&A)

Rainey Reitman, EFF activism director and lead organizer for Saturday's rally in Washington, talks about the organization's goals and demands for ending the NSA's spying program.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr Former senior reporter

Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.

4 min read
Stop Watching Us

In protest of the National Security Agency's surveillance program, thousands of people are expected to march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

The rally is being put together by a coalition of diverse groups that have come together under the umbrella organization Stop Watching Us. Their goal: end government spying.

The NSA is one of the biggest surveillance and eavesdropping agencies in the U.S. and was whistleblower Edward Snowden's workplace before he decided to leak some of the agency's top-secret documents to the press in June.

Rainey Reitman is the activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and lead organizer for the Stop Watching Us rally. Electronic Frontier Foundation

That document leak opened the public's eyes to the government's collection of data on US residents through both cellular records and metadata from Internet companies. Since Snowden's original leak, thousands more documents have surfaced.

At the time of the first leak, Stop Watching Us formed to take action against government surveillance programs and data collection. One such action was creating a petition calling for reform of federal surveillance laws. More than 575,000 people have now signed this petition. Stop Watching Us plans to deliver this petition to Congress during Saturday's rally.

The rally is scheduled to kick off at Union Station at 11:30 a.m. ET. Speakers include former NSA executive and whistleblower Thomas Drake, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and more. Snowden also released a statement on Thursday urging people to attend the rally, saying, "Now it's time for the government to learn from us."

Rainey Reitman, the activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the rally's lead organizer, discussed Stop Watching Us' goals for surveillance reform with CNET's Dara Kerr. Here's an edited transcript of that discussion.

Question: What is Stop Watching Us?
Reitman: Stop Watching Us is a coalition that came together right after the Snowden leaks began appearing earlier this summer. It's a coalition of more than 100 different organizations and companies from across the political spectrum, it's got everyone from EFF and ACLU to Reddit and Freedom Works.

Can you tell me a bit about the Stop Watching Us protest planned for this weekend?
Reitman: On Saturday, we are going to be gathering at noon at Columbus Circle and will march to the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It's going to be a historic protest against NSA mass surveillance. We are going to have speakers like Bruce Schneier and Representative Amash and Thomas Drake, as well as musicians like the indie-pop group Yacht. We are going to be delivering 570,000 petitions from people demanding an end to mass suspicion-less surveillance by the NSA.

What is this petition asking for?
Reitman: We ask for three things in particular. First, we are asking for a congressional investigation so we can shed light on exactly what the National Security Agency is doing. Secondly, we ask for reform of federal surveillance law, specifically Section 215 of the Patriot Act, section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the state secrets privilege. The third thing we ask for is that the public officials who are responsible for hiding this be held accountable for their actions.

So, it's kind of a weighted petition. It's not just a general "we stand against the NSA surveillance," it's asking for very specific things and very specific reforms.

How important is surveillance law reform to the everyday American?
Reitman: This type of dragnet surveillance affects everybody. It affects you and me, and it's keeping records of every time I call my mother. It's the type of information that frankly the federal government doesn't need to be collecting on every single person in the United States. It has a real palpable effect on the ability of Americans to communicate in privacy.

This is really a uniting issue, and I think that's why it's gotten such large support from people from all different political spectrums. This is ultimately something that everybody should care about. Just because you personally may not have something to hide from the United States government, doesn't mean you want to abandon the right of privacy for everyone.

What would surveillance law reform look like?
Reitman: Surveillance law reform is going to basically look like major overhauls to section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the section the government claims allows them to surveil our phone records, as well as major reforms to section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which they argue gives them the ability to do Internet surveillance. And, the state secrets privilege is the legal instrument the government uses to prevent lawsuits from holding them accountable from moving forward. In order to really stop surveillance, we've got to tackle all three of these problems. And then we also have to deal with larger transparency issues in the FISA court.

Have there been any signs from Congress on surveillance law reform?
Reitman: The good news is that legislation in Congress is already in the works to address a lot of these problems. So, what we have to do is make the political space for those pieces of legislation to get momentum and move forward. We also have to stop any legislation that would try to legalize what the NSA is doing, which also is something that might happen in the coming months, weeks, or days.

What's next for Stop Watching Us? Reitman: People should understand that the protest we're having this weekend is not the end of the fight, it's the beginning of a major battle we are going to have for months to come. This is the moment when we have an opportunity to really roll back the surveillance state like never before.