Privacy group tackles US government on e-spying


18 September 2006

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has launched a campaign to shed light on the US government’s electronic surveillance programmes.

The EFF is using the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) as a springboard to introduce information requests and litigation that it hopes will show the extent of government monitoring of web, e-mail and other electronic communications.

David Sobel, senior counsel on the FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government project, said that the investigations are at the early stages.




“The first step is initialising our very early requests and in the first month we might be filing some lawsuits based on lack of response,” he said. 

The EFF aims to uncover surveillance, database and data mining activities by the US government in recent years.

Sobel claims to have already contacted the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education.

“It is a fairly wide variety, particularly in a post 9/11 world where the government is interested in collecting and analysing large amounts of information,” said Sobel.

Passed by congress in 1966, the Freedom Of Information Act calls for the public availability of all records kept by government agencies.

The legislation allows for exemptions such as trade secrets, matters of national security and individuals’ private information.

Sobel described the campaign as an ongoing research project. “It is investigative in nature, [designed] to ferret out things the government would prefer the people would not be scrutinising,” he said.

The project is targeting government organisations for now, but Sobel said that private companies could become involved in the litigation.

David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project, said that the EFF has a good chance of uncovering electronic surveillance activities, but expects a hard time challenging the government in court.

Greene advises activists, journalists and artists on a number of free-speech issues, including FOIA.

“A lot of what we know about the detentions at Guantanamo and the current surveillance are through FOIA. The challenge is having to sue the government, but I think the EFF knows that. This is a litigation project,” said Greene. 

“You have to fight them on it, but the courts are pretty good about understanding what FOIA is.”


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