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Wikipedia Is Suing the NSA to Preserve Its Users' Anonymity

The nonprofit that runs Wikipedia and the ACLU say NSA spying threatens anonymity online.
March 10, 2015, 12:06pm

​ The nonprofit that runs Wikipedia says it and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the NSA and the US Department of Justice over mass surveillance, which they say limits Wikipedia users' ability to remain anonymous on the site.

Besides the ACLU, Wikimedia has signed on eight other civil liberties groups, including Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, to help fight its case, which  ​will be filed today in Maryland District Court.


In a New York Times op-ed, Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales wrote that the suit is primarily aimed at protecting the anonymity of volunteer Wikipedia editors, who, he says, edit articles about politically dangerous or contentious issues, such as civil liberties in China and gay rights in Uganda.

"Volunteers should be able to do their work without having to worry that the United States government is monitoring what they read and write," Wales wrote. "Unfortunately, their anonymity is far from certain because, using upstream surveillance, the N.S.A. intercepts and searches virtually all of the international text-based traffic that flows across the Internet 'backbone' inside the United States."

"As a result, whenever someone overseas views or edits a Wikipedia page, it's likely that the N.S.A. is tracking that activity—including the content of what was read or typed, as well as other information that can be linked to the person's physical location and possible identity."

Screengrab from an NSA PowerPoint.

The nonprofit organization said in a blog post that the complaint will be filed today. The post suggests that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, updated in 2008 and used as the justification for the PRISM surveillance program uncovered in 2013 by Snowden, is illegal.

"The program casts a vast net, and as a result, captures communications that are not connected to any 'target,' or may be entirely domestic," the foundation wrote. "This includes communications by our users and staff." Wikimedia also says the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court set up to decide when the NSA can intercept communications, is also inherently illegal, because its hearings are secret, and those spied on don't have ability to act as an opposing party.


Previous efforts to sue the NSA have failed, because courts have ruled that those suing lacked "standing." In other words, they couldn't prove specific instances in which the NSA spied on them, and couldn't prove harm through it. Wikipedia says that a Top Secret document revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 specifically shows that the NSA targeted Wikipedia and its users. No doubt, Wikipedia's and the ACLU's case will hinge largely on whether or not it can prove that one image from one PowerPoint document can be used to establish standing.

Wikimedia may indeed have a case, and it's clear that most internet users have been subject to at least some of the NSA's wide-ranging mass surveillance programs. But the organization's public evidence against the NSA, right now, has to be considered much weaker than the evidence had by Gemalto, the smartphone SIM card manufacturer who was allegedly hacked by the NSA in order to steal encryption keys that could be used to intercept phone communications.

The Gemalto hack was revealed by specific Top Secret documents released by Snowden, and a breach was later confirmed by an internal investigation by the company. Still, it said that it would not pursue a legal case against the NSA, a missed opportunity according to civil liberty experts.

"We encourage Gemalto to take legal action wherever possible—whether in US courts or in Europe—against the NSA and GCHQ for attacking the company and the security of its users," Peter Micek, an attorney at digital rights nonprofit Access, told me last month. "It's rare that companies have such clear evidence to present in court."


According to the complaint, Wikimedia wants the government to stop its mass surveillance program and dump any data it already has on Wikipedia users:

"Plaintiffs respectfully request that the Court declare the government's Upstream surveillance to be unlawful; enjoin the government from continuing to conduct Upstream surveillance of Plaintiffs' communications; and require the government to purge from its databases all of Plaintiffs' communications that Upstream surveillance has already allowed the government to obtain."

Wikimedia is going to face an uphill battle. But at least it's trying.

Wikimedia v2c Nsa - Complaint