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Groklaw shutdown shows ‘chilling effect’ of NSA surveillance

Aug 21, 20133 mins
Access ControlCloud SecurityData and Information Security

Groklaw going dark because of privacy concerns not the first -- nor the the last, likely. Lavabit, Silent Mail also shut down this month

The privacy concerns that led Groklaw founder Pamela Jones to shutter the award-winning legal news site are understandable given the breadth of U.S. government surveillance of Internet communications, experts say.

In closing the website on Tuesday, Jones made her last post on the blog a heartfelt goodbye that followed a couple of weeks of soul searching.

“The simple truth is, no matter how good the motives might be for collecting and screening everything we say to one another, and no matter how ‘clean’ we all are ourselves from the standpoint of the screeners, I don’t know how to function in such an atmosphere,” Jones wrote. “I don’t know how to do Groklaw like this.”

Jones’s dramatic action followed revelations in June that the National Security Agencym (NSA) was collecting massive amounts of data from telecommunication and Internet companies. Leaked to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the disclosure has sparked a national debate on whether the scope of the surveillance goes far beyond what the government claims it needs to fight terrorism.

After weighing the facts and arguments, Jones decided that the broadness of the snooping compromised privacy to the extent that she was no longer comfortable communicating with readers in and outside of the U.S. Most communications is through email.

“My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it’s possible,” she said.

Groklaw is not the first business to go dark because of NSA-related privacy concerns. U.S.-based encrypted email services Lavabit and Silent Mail were shut down after the owners determined they could not provide the level of secrecy their clients demanded. Silent Mail is one of several services offered by Silent Circle.

[Also see: Why we can’t stop malicious insidersNSA revelations a mixed bag for private clouds | Cloud market destined to change following NSA leaks | U.S. openness, restraint could lessen fallout from NSA surveillance |  NSA snooping bolsters opponents of U.S. Internet control | Privacy groups, some lawmakers rip into NSA surveillance]

Julian Sanchez, who focuses on the intersection of technology and privacy as a research fellow at the Cato Institute, said Jones’ conclusion “could very well be legitimate,” depending on the email discussions.

“If the site’s sources are engaged in confidential legal communications, they could very well have valid concerns about the security of those exchanges,” Sanchez said.

The closing of Groklaw and Lavabit demonstrate the “chilling effect” NSA surveillance is having on organizations, said Rob Banagale, chief executive and co-founder of Gliph, which provides encrypted text and picture messaging.

“Pamela’s concerns were personal, and I too have felt a chilling effect of sharing information via email since the revelation of U.S. surveillance programs,” Banagale said.

However, Peter Ludlow, a professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively about U.S. intelligence work, said Jones was giving up too easily. Instead, she should adopt other practices to bolster the privacy of sources.

“It’s true that no privacy-securing system is perfect, but this isn’t a perfect world,” Ludlow said. “Giving up just hands the surveillance state a reward for its tactics. That can’t be allowed to happen.”

Efforts to curb government surveillance include lawsuits filled against the NSA by privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). In addition, numerous reform bills have been introduced in Congress.

“Progress is being made, but it’s too early to tell what the final result will be,” said David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel at EPIC.