Over a month ago, I challenged and critiqued of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s call for surveillance reform. I wrote that while I am glad he had revealed, “the extent of the massive surveillance state run by elements of the U.S. government, there is definitely an area for critique and criticism,” that whistleblowers “hold very reformist thoughts” and that “the system…could afford getting ride of “bulk data collection” by the NSA, since the surveillance apparatus at-large would NOT be dismantled. Still, those who benefit from such collection don’t want it to go away.” This post is meant as an extension of that critique to Reset the Net and mass surveillance in general.
Reset the Net is an anti-surveillance “campaign” created after the revelations of government surveillance. Snowden made it seem that the campaign would be opposing all types of surveillance, government and corporate, saying that we need to take our privacy “back”:
“Today, we can begin the work of effectively shutting down the collection of our online communications, even if the US Congress fails to do the same…[encryption is] the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance…don’t ask for your privacy. Take it back.”
In the same article, Tiffiniy Cheng, spokesperson for Fight for the Future, which coordinated Reset the Net basically undermined the idea that all types of surveillance, corporate and by the state, would be opposed:
“Now, they’ve got a rebellion on their hands as tech companies and internet users work together to directly intervene in mass surveillance and block the NSA and its kind from the web.”
I’m not sure how something is a “rebellion” if corporations and internet users are working together. That sounds more like a way for the companies to reassure customers and their users that they care about privacy. As Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith said,
“It’s of course important for companies to do the things under our own control, and what we have under our own control is our own technology practices. I don’t know that anyone believes that will be sufficient to allay everyone’s concerns. There is a need for reform of government practices, but those will take longer.”
This makes me concerned about this campaign. There is another problem: the campaign’s main goal is to push for “mass adoption of encryption is a tool to fight mass surveillance” even though, as Bill Blunden notes, “strong encryption doesn’t translate into cyber security…if the minions of the Deep State want your data they’ll get it” and he argues that “to seek refuge in strong encryption is to escape into denial. Bolstering security and protecting our civil liberties will require the public to mobilize and generate the political impetus to take on the Deep State.” Despite this, the EFF, the Tor Project, ACLU of Massachusetts (and likely the whole organization) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, Natasha Leonard of Vice and New Inquiry, Glenn Greenwald (I would believe so)  and many others who care about government surveillance support this campaign.
Using their website, I found who supports Reset the Net:
According to their list of supporters, which compromises of fifty-six non-profit, public and private organizations, thirteen are for-profit companies (approx. 23%), twenty are non profits (including the three orgs. that back Democrats) (approx. 36 %), three are political parties, and four are mostly alternative media. The rest, sixteen organizations, are considered other, as I could not figure how I should categorize them. Think what you want about these supporters, but this doesn’t look too good to me.
I’m not the only one that critiques this campaign. Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook of the University of Tasmania wrote that Reset the Net falls short:
“A year on from Edward Snowden’s revelations around state sponsored mass surveillance programs, some of the major players in the online and technological world (including Google, Mozilla, Twitter and Reddit) have launched the Reset the Net campaign. The program aims to increase people’s awareness and uptake of privacy and security tools so they can better resist surveillance, particularly that conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). While the campaign is laudable in its efforts to raise the issue of surveillance, there are some glaring oversights present…Encryption makes any collected data more difficult (but not impossible) for authorities to interpret and act upon…While these are positive achievements, they merely address some of the more visible consequences and implications of surveillance, and fail to address what are perhaps the most worrying aspects of contemporary surveillance...The Reset the Net project acts to reinforce the idea that surveillance is primarily conducted by state authorities, with the NSA as the primary antagonist for this story…But the reality is that the NSA is only one actor in the surveillance drama…Google is just one of many private companies conducting surveillance today, with supermarkets, insurance companies and many Fortune 1000 companies all monitoring customers on a daily basis. This leads to the next issue with Reset the Net, and most counter-surveillance activities today: they don’t address the incredible amounts of data already circulating in surveillance databases. Surveillance today is not just about seeing into the lives of the present – it’s about cataloguing and using the past (and present) to understand the future…The focus on internet surveillance ignores that surveillance is not just on the internet, but everywhere…From smartphones to drones, there are many possibilities for invasive surveillance today…Internet surveillance is only one aspect of contemporary surveillance. The Reset the Net project paradoxically represents a small positive step in resisting and counteracting warrantless and illegal surveillance, while ignoring the bigger picture.”
Yasha Levine had a similar critique on PandoDaily, which often shills for the tech industry (but didn’t in this article), writing that Reset the Net avoids Google’s snooping:
“The virtual direct action campaign [Reset the Net] was organized by Fight for the Future, a group that organized the online anti-SOPA initiative back in 2012…See, despite all its highfalutin’ rhetoric, Reset the Net is deeply flawed. The reason: the campaign is not against online surveillance, just government surveillance. It has nothing to say or critique about the massive for-profit dragnet operations run by telecoms and Silicon Valley megacorps that target every woman, man and child in the United States and beyond. Reset the Net doesn’t mention private sector surveillance at all, acting instead as if it simply does not exist…how can these companies — which themselves stay in business by spying on us on line — help to defeat surveillance? By offering encryption apps — even if the encryption is only between our computers and smartphones, and their football field-sized server farms.To Reset the Net, Silicon Valley is our friend…Silicon Valley runs on surveillance…Google runs the largest private surveillance operation in the history of mankind…And if that wasn’t enough surveillance for you, then there’s the uncomfortable ties between Google and the US military-surveillance complex…Over the years, Google’s worked to enhance the surveillance capabilities of the biggest intel agencies in the world…Reset the Net is outraged by our government’s capability to wantonly vacuum up our personal info, and yet it unconditionally trusts powerful Surveillance Valley megacorps when they do the same thing on an even greater scale as a normal part of doing business.”
An article along the same lines was by Bill Blunden, who argued that Reset the Net doesn’t care about corporate spying:
“…Another subtle manipulation that’s being employed is to frame the narrative so that focus is placed entirely on government surveillance. This is the same caveat that haunts surveillance reform efforts like “Reset the Net”…In contrast to the inflated fanfare about disrupting terrorist plots…the global surveillance apparatus is essentially being driven by powerful corporate interests….This is the elephant standing in the corner that no one…wants to talk about. Roughly 70 percent of the intelligence budget…goes to the private sector…most of what we think of as government surveillance actually transpires in the private sector…The NSA is a mere appendage of a much larger private sector data aggregation panopticon that rakes in $200 billion every year…Google has extensive long-standing connections with the defense industry…Google has exerted a lot of effort into creating the impression of revolt. But Google hasn’t switched sides….More susceptible members of the audience who believe this storyline will continue to use Google services. This will reinforce the bottom line and subsequently reassure investors. Google will do what it’s always done: follow its fiduciary responsibility to generate profits. The public be damned!”
In the second part of PBS’s Frontline documentary, United States of Secrets, brought up this topic as well, talking about how corporations were integral to the surveillance apparatus:
TIM WU, Author, The Master Switch: There was shock and disbelief and horror. A lot of people I know, Silicon Valley-type people, just felt, “It can’t be right. It’s not possible. Google, Facebook, these guys are collaborating. It’s not just what they would do.”
NARRATOR: The big Internet companies had different priorities. At the same time the government was expanding its intelligence gathering, the companies were trying to find out as much as possible about their users, amassing huge data troves. The NSA was watching.
CHRIS HOOFNAGLE, UC Berkeley Law School: These companies are in a very difficult spot because the types of activities they engage in is very similar to surveillance. It is surveillance, just for advertising, rather than for law enforcement. The private sector is where the whole game is.
CHRIS HOOFNAGLE: My friends at the FBI say that they love Facebook. They love it. It is a fantastic tool to see who one communicates and associates with, what they’re interested in, et cetera.
NARRATOR: Today, all the big Internet companies use advanced tracking technology, and the NSA has carefully studied their methods. For them, commercial tracking is an opportunity.
JULIA ANGWIN: The NSA sees all this data that’s flowing to these advertisers, and they’re thinking, “Look at all this data about people’s behavior that’s just flying out there to hundreds of different parties, and oftentimes not encrypted.” And so they can just snatch it.
ASHKAN SOLTANI: Because Google’s using a tracking cookie, the NSA can sit back and see all that stuff go by. They can monitor all of that activity, all those cookies, and use it in order to track your browsing history or inject malware into your computer. And if they sent you malware, it would take over your computer and essentially let them access all your data, all your keystrokes, all your passwords, et cetera.
BARTON GELLMAN: So where we are now is in a place where we’re living behind one-way mirrors. Corporate America and law enforcement and national security state know so much about us, and we know so little about them. We know so little about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it. And we can’t actually hold our government accountable because we truly don’t know what it’s doing.
The same topic came up in a Q & A session about Silicon Valley, the NSA and more which was one of the online components of the documentary:
Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai: “That definitely plays a role in all this. We rely so much on these tech companies — Google, Facebook and company — that we basically create a few one stop shops for the NSA to go get our data.”
Martin Smith: “The fundamental problem is that in exchange for free services, our personal data is mined for advertising purposes. The government therefore gets easy access.”
Ashkan Soltani: “…the incentives aren’t really there for companies to invest in security. Most companies compete on new features and extra storage, not on the security of their cloud services. As a result, the NSA (and foreign governments too) can take advantage of weaknesses in companies’ services in order to collect data on billions of users…as long as cloud providers insist on having access to the raw (cleartext) data, then that data is available to the government under a law known as the ‘3rd party doctrine’.”
There is one final webpage on the documentary’s site that I feel is worth sharing. It is about National Security Letters or NSLs that the US government uses to compel certain private companies and individuals to give them information, and prohibits those companies and individuals from speaking about these these letters. There seems to be one exception to this:
“Ten years later, Nick Merrill still can’t discuss the details of the data request that came hand delivered to him from the FBI. If he could, Merrill says, people would be shocked by the implications for their online privacy…The request came by way of a National Security Letter, or NSL. The letters are not well known, but since 9/11 they’ve helped to dramatically expand the government’s ability to collect information about Americans directly from phone companies and Internet providers. Any FBI office can issue an NSL, without a court’s review and with a gag order…Merrill was not even sure he could discuss the letter with his attorney, but unconvinced the order was legal, he chose to challenge it on constitutional grounds. The decision set Merrill apart.”
For those Reset the Net supporters who know the underlying truth that corporations are integral to surveillance system, and still support the campaign are being foolish. There is no doubt that the interests of those against government surveillance will overlap with the companies that want to act like they care about privacy (they don’t). I understand why ordinary people are participating in this campaign as many are pissed off and for good reason, but I will not be signing any petitions, or participating in any actions by Reset the Net or others following their example. Some seem to think that working with the companies is a good idea and I disagree. Even though these companies have a good amount of clout, that doesn’t mean that people should be working with them. This effort, Reset the Net, is no rebellion, rather it is an anti-NSA surveillance effort serving as a front for corporations that participate (and profit from) government mass surveillance. As Eli Pariser wrote, powerful cloud giants, like Google and Amazon, have “a vested interest in keeping the government entities happy.”  This effort is in a sense a way of keeping the government entities happy, as it distracts from the corporate-state nexis on surveillance, but in another sense it is also about defending their bottom line, their profit margins, protecting their consumer base.
One must ask if Reset the Net is even a social movement. Noel Sturgeon, a feminist scholar and political scientist, defines a social movements as
“contestants in hegemonic power relations, through which change is produced by numerous kinds of “action” including…the deployment of symbolic resources, shifts in identity reconstruction, and the production of popular and scholarly knowledge–as well as direct action, civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, lobbying, and offer more traditionally recognized forms of political action.” 
There is no way that Reset the Net fits these characteristics of a social movement. It does not deploy symbolic resources, it does not shift construction of identity and it does not product popular and scholarly knowledge.What are social movements are efforts such as fighting the Keystone XL pipeline (on the ground), AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s, and the fights for feminism, gay liberation and black liberation, among many others.
While this article does not hint at what should be done or an explanation of the corporate-state nexis on surveillance, there will be a further article on this topic in the future, along with another article looking into groups like the EFF and Fight the Future. That is all.
 In a post on the Reset the Net tumblr blog, he showed that this was not the case, with the full quote which was partially used in The Guardian article:
“Today, we can begin the work of effectively shutting down the collection of our online communications, even if the US Congress fails to do the same. That’s why I’m asking you to join me on June 5th for Reset the Net, when people and companies all over the world will come together to implement the technological solutions that can put an end to the mass surveillance programs of any government. …We have the technology, and adopting encryption is the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance. That’s why I am excited for Reset the Net — it will mark the moment when we turn political expression into practical action, and protect ourselves on a large scale.”
 According to an article in Firedoglake by Kevin Gosztola summarizing Glenn Greenwald’s speech to the Socialism 2013 Conference, he “…expanded the discussion into how private companies are working in concert with the federal government. He characterized this coopeation as “a full-scale merger between the federal government and industry” where the two are “equally important parts” of the surveillance state,” however from this account it seems he focused a lot on government surveillance and very little on corporate surveillance which is tied into government surveillance. What was his solution? Subverting the “radical transparency” of the surveillance state, groups like Anonymous, organizations like WikiLeaks, wanting “holes to be blown in the wall of secrecy” and endorsing “the use of technology that protects the identity of users.” The last endorsement sounds a lot like Reset the Net.
 Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. 146. The Penguin Press: New York, 2007. One of the best examples of keeping these entities them happy is Google and the CIA both investing in a company called Recorded Future, “which focuses on using data collection to predict future real world events.”
 The quote used here was reprinted in Karen J. Warren’s Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters, but originally comes from Strugeon’s book, Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory, and Political Action.