Students Protest NSA Spying a Year After Snowden Revelations

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Students from around the country have penned a series of open letters against government surveillance on college campuses.

The campaign is an effort by Student Net Alliance, a group that was formed last fall in the wake of former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden’s revelations about government spying.

"We came to university thinking that we could learn with confidence, without fear that what we are studying or investigating could potentially be used against us," reads a letter posted to "Given what we now know from Edward Snowden’s leaks, we no longer have that assurance. In an environment of mass surveillance, speech and academic freedom are chilled. People are afraid to speak freely. This is not a healthy environment for learning."


The movement comes one year after Snowden leaked government secrets in one of the most widely covered whistleblowing campaigns of all time.

While some government officials have called him a traitor, Americans are more likely to view him as a whistleblower. That's particularly true when it comes to young people.

Alec Foster, one of the founders of the student movement and a May graduate of New York University, said "Snowden completely changed my life."

Foster used to be an NSA trainee in one of the agency’s cyber security corp programs, he said. The position came with a scholarship and generous stipend, but Foster said he “felt misled when I realized the full scope of the NSA’s secret programs.”


The revelations drove him to help found the Student Net Alliance in December 2013.

"We realized enough is enough," he said. "Before Snowden’s disclosures, there was no student voice in the internet rights debate."


Now, Foster says, that voice is growing. More than 400 students and faculty from 18 schools have penned letters against surveillance on college campuses. He expects participation to grow to 30 schools by the end of June.

The group worries that students researching controversial topics or seeking mental health assistance could be targeted. Even if individual students are not being watched, the group argues, the potential for surveillance creates self-censorship, which stifles learning.


The NSA hasn’t responded (and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Fusion, either), but Foster says that’s fine with him, for now. It’s the universities the students want to hear from.

"The gatekeepers of our data are our universities," he said, "and they have immense control over what data they turn over to authorities."


Foster, who said he plans to start a job with Google soon, says several schools, including NYU, have said they are open to discussing the issue of surveillance with students.

"What makes [our universities] special is the core commitment to free, unbridled and ideologically unconstrained discourse in which claims of knowledge are examined, confirmed, deepened or replaced,” John Sexton, president of NYU, said in a statement posted on the campaign’s site. “In this regard, I emphasize the importance of acting aggressively and with every means at our disposal to secure and protect every element essential to the general enterprise of free inquiry, the centrality of standards and the reciprocal commitments attendant to citizenship within the sanctuary."


"We don’t know" how complicit the schools are, Foster said, but added that he is encouraged by conversations with some of the schools about increasing transparency. He’d like schools to publish, for instance, how many foreign intelligence requests they receive.

Google announced several months ago that it will no longer scan messages sent through its education apps, which are used by more than 30 million students and educators.


Foster says privacy concerns can have a "chilling effect" on university campuses, where students should be able to research and learn freely. Foster wrote his honors thesis on the Anonymous movement, he said, and thinks it’s "highly conceivable" his IP address was flagged as a result.

As a student, Foster founded a group looking into drug policy and said some students were "too scared of ending up on a government list as drug policy reformers" to join.


"I’m not afraid of surveillance, but it’s sad. It’s not the kind of country that I thought that I lived in growing up," he said. "As students, we’re on the front lines of this fight."

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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