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    The Grassroots Campaign to Take Away the Spy Money: An Interview with Defund the NSA

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    DJ Pangburn


    Image via Flickr

    On Wednesday, Congress is set to vote on a Defense Appropriations bill amendment that would defund the NSA's surveillance program. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) with bipartisan support, would end authority for the "blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act" and "bars the NSA and other agencies from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215." The bill would force House members to come out either for or against NSA surveillance. 

    In response, according to The Huffington Post, the NSA's Keith Alexander extended an invitation to members of Congress for a last-minute briefing to mount an effort to kill Amash's amendment. The invitation reads: "In advance of anticipated action on amendments to the DoD Appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency."

    Yesterday, just after the amendment was ruled in order, an activist group called Defund the NSA launched a website to raise awareness about the Defense Appropriations vote. The website was put together by four volunteers—Sina Khanifar, Thomas Davis, Jens Nockert, and Beau Gunderson. Defund the NSA is part of a much more ambitious effort called tasktorce.is, "a volunteer organization with over 100 developers and technologists working to help with important campiagns and build effective activism tools." Taskforce.is cut its teeth on the RestoreTheFourth website in a speedy 24 hours. 

    I had a chance to speak with Sina Khanifar over Skype. We talked about launching DefundTheNSA.com, what we can expect from the Amash amendment, and what taskforce.is plans to do after the vote tomorrow. 

    Motherboard: With this DefundTheNSA website, you guys are fighting America's extreme lack of awareness with regard to the Amash amendment. It's really sneaking right pass the American people. 

    Sina Khanifar: Yeah, it almost came out of nowhere. I don't think anyone was really following it because they didn't expect it to be greenlit and voted on tomorrow. I am on a mailing list with the folks from the Stop Watching coalition. Demand Progress also sent an email out yesterday saying the amendment was a pretty big deal, so we jumped on it as well. 

    How did you guys organize to create the DefundTheNSA website, and how quickly did it come together?

    I'm a startup person, but I've been doing this activism stuff for the last six months. I basically helped build the Stop Watching site. It was my second big activism campaign, and it was really tough to get it done. It took three sleepless nights to get it built after the first NSA leaks came out. So I put out a post asking people to join up and be part of a rapid-response taskforce, and also to help build tools to make these campaigns better. I had more than 100 people sign up as volunteers to help us, which we called taskforce.is. We helped Restore the Fourth rebuild their website about two weeks ago now. 

    For DefundTheNSA.com, I sent an email out last night saying that this vote was happening and we needed a website for it. Three people—one from Australia, another from California, and one guy from parts unknown—helped me build the website. We finished at 4 a.m. and launched it. 

    So how have people been responding to your efforts here? I know it has found some traction on Reddit and Y Combinator's Hacker News

    We're kind of the first ones to respond to it. Demand Progress started a page but it wasn't amazing. We've got loads of traction on Twitter, and people are realizing that this is a big deal. We're pushing for people to call their representatives. At this point, phone calls are really all you can do. It's too late for an email campaign.

    What do you think is the most significant aspect of this week's vote on the Amash amendment?

    The most important part of this is that it's the first instance of members of the House voting for or against the gathering of metadata. It's a bit like drawing a line in the sand, and asking members of Congress if they're for or against it. Everyone's going to be on record as either opposing or supporting NSA surveillance. 

    What's the plan after the vote, whatever the outcome?

    That's a really good question. To be honest, I haven't really thought that far ahead. Depending on what happens, I think it would be really useful to draw up a list of people who voted for or against, and here are the people who didn't take part. As far as what the campaign response is going to be, I don't know. If we don't get the votes needed, is that a big resounding "no" for what we're advocating for? I'm not sure. I think part of it is making a more compelling case to the American people about why surveillance is a bad idea, which is what I will be focused on in the next few weeks.

    The most compelling argument for me is, "Where does it end?" When you start interpreting things in broad ways, you start getting into murky territory. If we wanted to do surveillance properly, we could almost stop all crime. We know how that works. So, it's not a stretch to say, "We've stopped 50 terrorist attacks, so we can stop jaywalking forever." There are lot of things that you can do that are a reducto ad absurdum of that argument.

    Right. I've always been struck by the statistics of this question. There are approximately 300 million people in the US, but if you look at the number of recorded terrorist attacks and attempts, you'll note the frequency of the attacks and the potential for them is so infinitesimally small. Yet, our leaders behave as if there is the potential for a pandemic of terrorism, and only they can stop it. It really puts the surveillance dragnet in perspective, and demonstrates its absurdity.

    Yeah, I totally agree. The number of deaths from terrorist attacks compared to everything else that could happen, that we could easily stop using way less complicated technology, is pretty amazing.