If you've been following United States and international surveillance law in any capacity since former security contractor Edward Snowden leaked a trove of National Security Agency documents, you know that feelings of bafflement, astonishment, and anger have become nothing if not routine.
Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford Law School instructor, wants to change all that. His idea is a simple one: teach surveillance law online, for free. On the deep web, if you want.
Mayer told me the Stanford surveillance law course is designed for two audiences. If a student would like to understand the big picture of government surveillance, there will be online readings, quizzes, and a forum designed for that ambition. But, if they would prefer a quick background on a particular issue—say, Ronald Reagan's Executive Order 12333, which authorized the NSA's mass data collection—then students can "pop in" for just that lecture.
Government surveillance doesn't really come with an instruction manual for the public.
And in a move that's both symbolic and practical, Stanford is running its own Tor hidden service for the course, independent of the class's Coursera site, configured to not log requests. There, Mayer will offer the surveillance course's lectures, readings, and video downloads.
"Given the subject matter, and some of the individuals who have expressed interest in the material, it seemed prudent to offer a privacy enhanced version of the course," Mayer said. "It's just one course, though others might be offered in future."
The course will begin with an overview of how surveillance fits into the American legal system, including how surveillance issues can be litigated. Mayer then pivots into the basics of surveillance law—police surveillance procedures, wiretapping, data requests, and so on.
Coursework then moves into how surveillance law is being applied to modern information technology, both online and in hardware like mobile devices, from email and web browsing to GPS tracking. The class will also delve into how law enforcement can mandate backdoors and require decryption; how foreign intelligence surveillance parallels domestic police activities; and then into the controversial NSA programs like PRISM, Upstream, and the domestic phone metadata collection program.
"This stuff matters, and the law can and does regulate government surveillance," he said. "Government surveillance doesn't really come with an instruction manual for the public."