And so the fallout from the PRISM leaks continues. As of today, Groklaw, one of the most highly regarded blogs in the techsphere that shot to fame with its coverage of SCO intellectual property lawsuits against firms like Novell and IBM, is closing down in protest at the threat of email surveillance from spy agencies like the NSA.
Groklaw founder Pamela Jones announced her decision earlier today in a powerful blog post where she reveals she’s spent the last couple of weeks wrestling with the decision. In particular, she points to comments by Lavabit founder Ladar Levision, who stated not so long ago that he’s stopped using email altogether, and that if everyone knew what he knew, they’d most likely stop using it as well.
It’s worth reading Jone’s full article here, but if you don’t have time the gist is that she draws a comparison between the total lack of email privacy to the experience of being robbed – the experience causes the same kind of mental anguish that you feel when you realize that something you held to be private and personal no longer is, such as that creepy feeling after you wake up to discover your home has been burgled and all of your possessions rifled through.
“And the conclusion I’ve reached is that there is no way to continue doing Groklaw, not long term, which is incredibly sad,” she writes.
“But it’s good to be realistic. And 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 standpont of the screeners, I don’t know how to function in such an atmosphere. I don’t know how to do Groklaw like this.”
Jones goes on to describe her feelings on the importance of privacy and intimacy, and how the actions of a totalitarian state effectively takes these rights away from us. In her post, she quotes a passage on the subject from the book Private Matters by Janna Malamud Smith, noting the psychological impact that a lack of privacy causes.
Jones claims that this is how she feels about the NSA’s PRISM program, which routinely collects emails sent both within and outside the US. She writes that this complete lack of privacy and intimacy led her to conclude that it’s impossible to continue running Groklaw:
“There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the US out or to the US in, but really anywhere. You don’t expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say? Constricted and distracted. That’s it exactly. That’s how I feel.”
“So. There we are. The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can’t do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate.”
“I’m really sorry that it’s so. I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.”
Some readers might feel that Jone’s decision to close down Groklaw is an over-reaction, but her actions are nothing if not noble as they address one of the biggest concerns stemming from the NSA’s surveillance – the psychological impact it has on people. Many might consider PRISM to be rather low level, and in a way it is as the vast majority of people’s emails are only ever ‘read’ by a computer. Nevertheless, for a chilling example of the profound effects of knowing someone is watching your every move, listening to every word you utter, we need look no further than Ira Glass’s interviews of lawyers representing prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, who spoke of how their clients were scared to be emotional when it came to speaking to their closest family members. Clearly not everyone is going to be affected so acutely by the NSA’s spying, but it will definitely have a big effect on some – as is the case with Jones.
We’re yet to witness the full scale of the fallout from PRISM, but there’s no doubt it will be far-reaching. But what we have seen is evidence of US-based cloud computing companies losing their customer’s trust, and now with Groklaw shutting down for exactly the same reasons as secure email providers Lavabit and Silent Circle, the consequences have already had more impact than most would have imagined. All the while US government officials continue to insist that PRISM is necessary to “protect” Americans, but is it really worth the price we’re paying?