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How 9/11 shaped U.S. mass surveillance and stifled digital rights

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 10 September 2021 17:15 GMT

The dashboard for the New York Police Department's 'Domain Awareness System' (DAS) is seen in New York May 29, 2013. The New York City Police Department, having developed one of the most sophisticated counter-terror surveillance networks in the United States, has now expanded its use to combat neighborhood crime. Photo taken May 29, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

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United States' digital policy since Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has left little room for online privacy or freedom.

Shaped by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. internet policy is curbing civil liberties two decades on as anti-terror measures take precedent over people's digital rights, an advocate warned.

Online privacy in the United States has been eroded by an era of mass surveillance and a belief that the internet must be monitored, censored, and controlled to prevent terrorism, said Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

"The original sin of the war on terror was that we allowed the government to act without strong accountability or oversight, and that was true when it came to the internet," said McSherry, legal director at the U.S.-based digital rights group.

"The response to September 11 has shaped so much about internet policy, but the very clear and obvious first one is mass surveillance online," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

"We may have new technologies, we don't have to lose sight of our constitutional principles," McSherry said.


Among other campaigns, the EFF has spent more than a decade fighting a legal battle against the online surveillance and interception of communications conducted without a warrant by the National Security Agency, according to McSherry.

"What we saw in the wake of the (Sept. 11, 2011) attack was ... an approach by the U.S. government to 'collect it all', taking advantage of all the ways people communicate online to suck up as much info as possible, with almost no oversight."

"It shaped how people behaved themselves on the internet, it sent a strong message to regular people that their activities are not private," she added. "It has had an impact on how journalists do their work, how activists do their work."

In the wake of the attacks, the U.S Congress passed the Patriot Act, significantly expanding authority to collect data on Americans, while spy agencies secretly expanded programs of internet monitoring that were later revealed by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The federal government's approach has had a ripple effect on local communities, advocates say, from police departments that collect the online activities of activists to border agents recording the social media handles of immigrants.

"One thing we have seen the last few decades is that law enforcement agencies all down the chain have taken up internet surveillance as a part of what they do - from local police, to border authorities," McSherry said.

U.S. lawmakers have often argued that a light-touch approach risks terror attacks going undetected, but rights advocates say that intelligence and law enforcement authorities have less objectionable tools to investigate and prosecute militant plots.


The pressure to identify and remove extremist content online extends beyond government, as internet giants and social media sites are increasingly being encouraged to tackle such material.

Facebook, Google's YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft joined forces in 2017 to form the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism following scrutiny from U.S. and European lawmakers.

"When the government declares a war on terror, it deputizes platforms to assist - the way everyone experiences the internet is under its shadow," said McSherry, who described online content moderation as "opaque and unaccountable to anyone".

Debates around the extent of government digital intrusion post-9/11 also focus on encryption, and whether the state should ever be given access to private messages sent between devices.

After authorities struggled to access an encrypted iPhone owned by shooters who mounted a terror attack in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, lawmakers stepped up pressure on tech firms to weaken the privacy built into their products.

A similar debate erupted last year around the encrypted phone used by a man who shot three Americans at a U.S. airbase in Florida.

"Law enforcement always pulls out the risk of terror attacks as a reason why we need to develop a backdoor," she said. Advocates say unbreakable encryption is vital for privacy.

Despite her concern that internet policy was still being influenced by terrorism fears, McSherry highlighted resistance in the form of digital innovations to protect personal privacy online - from encryption to virtual private networks (VPNs).

"Because of this I remain very optimistic about the internet - as a tool for liberation, and as a place for organization and connection," she said.

"It's important we do not organize our internet policy out of fear of a relatively small group people," she added. "Let's organize it around the interests of the 99% - the rest of us."


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(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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