The global technology firm, ThoughtWorks, where the late digital freedom and information activist Aaron Swartz worked, has become one of the first technology firms to urge immediate action be taken to address National Security Agency programs and end mass surveillance.
The firm has 3000 employees in twelve countries around the world. It is also a twenty year-old business.
I met with Matt Simons, the head of social and economic justice, and Joanna Parke, who is the managing director for the firm’s North America division, at the firm’s Chicago headquarters earlier this month. They spoke to me about publicly endorsing the USA FREEDOM Act and what they thought technologists needed to do to address what former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had exposed so far.
“We really feel as though this surveillance state needs to be significantly rolled back,” Simons said. “We’re also supporting the Holt bill, which is known as the Surveillance State Repeal Act and repeals the PATRIOT Act and section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.” The bill introduced by Rep. Rush Holt has picked up sponsors in the aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures and has also been endorsed by the editorial board of the New York Times.
“If we’re going to be a little more pragmatic about things, the USA FREEDOM Act is the best of the lot,” Simons added. The firm thought it was an important step to support the bill proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. James Sensenbrenner. It has a lot of sponsorship, it is bipartisan, it creates transparency, it establishes an adversarial process with a privacy advocate, and it would limit bulk collection. However, “We are nervous that first step often becomes the only step.”
There must be “much broader action.” Mass surveillance is “incompatible with a democratic society,” and, “once this genie is out of the bottle, once you’re collecting all this information, it will be abused.”
The belief that there must be broader action partly explains why ThoughtWorks has been a part of the “Stop Watching Us” coalition and supported a major rally that took place in Washington, DC, at the end of October.
Neither Parke or Simons seemed particularly surprised at what had been revealed so far yet that did not make what had been revealed any less significant.
“We’re a global company. We have people across the globe. We have clients across the globe and we work in global teams,” Parke explained. “For us, this issue isn’t just about the US and US companies but around the globe. And I think the internet being the basis for how our company works. We would literally not be able to do the work we do today were it not for the internet. So anything that sort of threatens or compromises that is of huge concern for us for many different reasons, because of it’s impact on business but also just because of the way we are able to communicate and operate as a global company.”
Simons said the firm had a group that used to be considered the “paranoid wing of ThoughtWorkers.” They would claim all of this was happening and it just was not known. Revelation by revelation, “everything they’ve told us” has turned out to be “substantiated as being true.”
Reacting to the revelations around the NSA breaking into the communications links between Google and Yahoo, he added that this shows the “total impunity that the NSA has acted with to go to these private Internet cables.”
Parke and Simons both addressed how the NSA had tried to crack encryption and even plant individuals in companies, who could provide information on access points to the NSA for surveillance.
As for what ThoughtWorks thinks about companies like Google claiming they cannot share information on government data requests with their users, Parke said, “It’s important for them to feel like they are able to disclose what they have complied with, but they’re not fighting against the request for compliance.” They are making an argument that the government is preventing them from “saving face” with their customers, not the the surveillance should not be happening in the first place.
Technology created this problem, according to Simons. In order to address it, there needs to be technological solutions as well as legal and political solutions. Companies in industry need to take a stand.
Technologists - ultimately technology created this problem and it needs to be addressed with technological solutions as well as legal and political solutions. More companies, they said, should be joining them to oppose what the NSA has done to the internet.