Wikimedia fights for fundamental right to privacy, sues NSA over mass surveillance

'Bring it,' Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told the NSA as Wikimedia fights for the fundamental right to privacy by suing to stop NSA mass surveillance.

online privacy
Sebastien Wiertz (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

“Bring it,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted to the NSA in reference to the Wikimedia Foundation filing a lawsuit that challenges the NSA’s mass surveillance. While the NSA and DOJ may have the power of the government, Wikimedia Foundation has the power of the people; each month, “nearly half a billion people from almost every country on earth” access Wikimedia’s freely distributed knowledge.

“Privacy is the bedrock of individual freedom. It is a universal right that sustains the freedoms of expression and association,” stated the Wikimedia blog. “If people look over their shoulders before searching, pause before contributing to controversial articles, or refrain from sharing verifiable but unpopular information, Wikimedia and the world are poorer for it.”

“Stop spying on Wikipedia users,” Wales and Wikimedia Foundation executive director Lila Tretikov said in The New York Times. “Privacy is an essential right. It makes freedom of expression possible, and sustains freedom of inquiry and association. It empowers us to read, write and communicate in confidence, without fear of persecution. Knowledge flourishes where privacy is protected.”

“By tapping the backbone of the internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy,” said Tretikov. “Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”

“We've been very clear about what constitutes a valid target of electronic surveillance,” an Obama administration official told Reuters. “The act of innocuously updating or reading an online article does not fall into that category.”

Oh really? That’s funny because merely reading the Linux Journal, or "searching the web for the privacy-enhancing software tools" gets users marked and the IP address tracked by the NSA. It doesn't matter if you are a hardcore user, or simply curious, the NSA paints an "extremist" tracking bull's-eye on people visiting websites such as Tails (a Tor-powered operating system), HotSpotShield, FreeNet, Centurian,, MegaProxy,, anonymous email service MixMinion and anyone searching for how to combine Tails with Truecrypt. Despite the unnamed official claiming the NSA doesn't spy on people who innocuously update or read an online article, the Wikimedia Foundation points at a leaked classified NSA presentation slide about mass surveillance; it explicitly shows the Wikipedia icon.

NSA HTTP slide showing Wikipedia icon NSA via ACLU

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know the NSA is like a ginormous mass-intercept vacuum plugged into the internet’s backbone, hoovering up internet communications such as emails, search engine queries, web-browsing content and more. “Upstream” surveillance is one of the names used to describe the NSA’s large-scale search and seizure of such communications. The NSA believes it has the epic spying right due to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA). Even if an American isn’t communicating with someone overseas, their communication could be routed out of the country. The NSA searches “international” communications for keywords about targets.

The Wikimedia blog explained:

The NSA has interpreted the FAA as offering free rein to define threats, identify targets, and monitor people, platforms, and infrastructure with little regard for probable cause or proportionality. We believe that the NSA’s current practices far exceed the already broad authority granted by the U.S. Congress through the FAA. Furthermore, we believe that these practices violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and association, and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Supreme Court dismissed Amnesty v. Clapper in 2013, rejecting the challenge to the FAA because the plaintiffs could not prove the spying happened and that it caused them harm. Yet Wikimedia believes it has “standing” due to the leaked NSA slide showing the Wikipedia icon.

The Wikimedia Foundation is not alone in the fight against the NSA’s mass surveillance. It is joined by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), The Rutherford Institute, The Nation Magazine, Global Fund for Women (GFW), PEN American Center, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). The major lawsuit (pdf) filed by the ACLU mentions privacy 15 times; each of the plaintiffs claim that the NSA’s dragnet surveillance invades the privacy of their communications.

The suit (pdf) states, “The government has implemented the FAA expansively, with significant consequences for Americans’ privacy. The Director of National Intelligence has reported that, in 2013, the government relied on the FAA to target 89,138 individuals, groups, or organizations for surveillance under a single court order.” That’s right, just one.

“The NSA is exceeding even the authority granted by the FISA Amendments Act,” the ACLU said. “Rather than limit itself to monitoring Americans' communications with the foreign targets, the NSA is spying on everyone, trying to find out who might be talking or reading about those targets.”

ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey added, “Upstream surveillance flips the Constitution on its head. It allows the government to search everything first and ask questions later, making us all less free in the process. Our suit aims to stop this kind of surveillance.”

I agree with anyone that believes privacy is a fundamental right, not a luxury and not an indication of being a terrorist, or a criminal, or otherwise suspicious; I’ll pick up and wave that privacy flag along with them as the chant “fight, fight fight!” can be heard in the cyber ether. As Wikimedia said:

Privacy makes freedom of expression possible, sustains freedom of inquiry, and allows for freedom of information and association. Knowledge flourishes where privacy is protected.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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