Snowden and EFF: civil liberties or civil disobedience?

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Alex Fowler: "We see the internet based on principles of democracy, human rights, and patriotic goals."

Alex Fowler: “We see the internet based on principles of democracy, human rights, and patriotic goals.”

By Robert Israel

While Russia’s aggressive militarism continues to dominate global headlines, there has been no news from that part of the world about the fate of Edward Snowden, a former U. S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked large amounts of classified information about the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs. Since he has been granted asylum in Russia, we have to assume Snowden is continuing his efforts to release vital security information via the internet. The ongoing military conflicts in Russia presently overshadow his story which once dominated the headlines.

Some have labeled Snowden a hero for leaking the information, others a traitor. And there are still others who, whether they agree with his tactics or not, are championing what they affirm are civil liberties issues, namely the release of classified information into the public domain.

One such group is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), based in San Francisco.

EFF states its mission is “defending civil liberties in the digital world.” They made headlines long before Edward Snowden. In the 1990s, they applied their resources to “crack,” or decipher, an encryption code employed by the U.S. government and other public and private agencies meant to protect unclassified communications and data. EFF seeks to “defend free speech online, fight illegal surveillance, advocate for users and innovators, and support freedom-enhancing technologies.”

Deciphering codes dates back to Roman times. Julius Caesar used secret codes relayed to his troops during military campaigns. Messages were delivered to the troops, a corresponding “key” was used, and the message was translated. During World War II, a pioneering British cryptographer Alan Turing — one of the inventors of the digital computer — cracked the famous “Enigma” code used by the Nazis to send secret orders to their army and navy. Only recently did the British government acknowledge Turing’s historic efforts that hastened the war’s end; they issued an apology for having persecuted him for being a homosexual. He committed suicide during the aftermath of WWII.

In 1998, EFF “cracked” an encryption code by developing the “EFF Cracker,” a machine, much like the one Alan Turing used, to break the Data Encryption Standard (DES). EFF later published a book on their efforts, Cracking DES: Secrets of Encryption Research, Wiretap Politics and Chip Design.

“Producing a workable policy for encryption has proven a very hard political challenge,” said John Gilmore, one of EFF’s founders, at the time. “We believe that it will only be possible to craft good policies if all the players are honest with one another and the public. When the government won’t reveal relevant facts, the private sector must independently conduct the research and publish the results so we can all see the social trade-offs in policy choices.”

In 1998, however, the U.S. Justice Department downplayed the EFF “Cracker,” stating that the organization’s call for a stronger encryption law would only be supported if it were proven there was evidence of a machine that could decrypt secret messages sent by government enemies.

Had the U.S. government had the foresight to see what might ensue many years later when Edward Snowden did just that with highly classified documents, they might have changed their tune — and policies.

“We are not a cyber-militia, and we do not see ourselves as subversive,” declared Alex Fowler, who, at the time, was employed by EFF as their director of public affairs. When I interviewed him several years ago, Fowler insisted EFF was as American as cherry pie.

“We see the internet based on principles of democracy, human rights and patriotic goals,” Fowler told me. “We believe in the online environment. But the fact of the matter is the DES encryption is not secure. If EFF is able to expose this by using a machine that costs $220,000 to build, what about can an enemy who has unlimited resources accomplish?”

The Data Encryption Standard was first adopted as a federal standard in 1977 by IBM and modified by the National Security Agency, the very agency that employed Edward Snowden as a contractor. It used 56-bit keys. A user must employ precisely the right combination of 56 1s and 0s to decode information correctly.

The EFF “Cracker” read encrypted messages by finding the key that was used to encrypt the data. The design, Fowler told me, consists of an ordinary personal computer connected to a large array of custom chips.

“By using the ‘Cracker,'” Fowler said, “we are placing a wake-up call to the federal government that agencies using the 56-bit encryption code are running a risk of having that information compromised.”

That’s exactly what Edward Snowden did when he sat down in front of his own computer and released information via the information highway. He has claimed to possess additional documents that he may release soon. Snowden, like EFF, call themselves “Net-izens,” or pioneering internet citizens who use the World Wide Web to access and to release freedom of information.

Alex Fowler, who has since left EFF for a career with the ACLU, said in the late 1990s that he was bursting with high ideals and that by “cracking” the code he had hoped the U.S. government would engage in discussions so that they and watchdog agencies like EFF could work together to achieve more transparency.

We need only to look at the Snowden affair, still cloaked in secrecy and high intrigue, to realize that the dialog Fowler and others envisaged seems to be on hold — indefinitely.

Robert Israel can be reached at This report was updated from an earlier version that was published in AltaVista MarketSpace magazine (Maynard, Mass.)


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