Activists take to the skies in NSA spying protest

If you visited the NSA’s sprawling data center in Utah on Friday you’ll have noticed a huge blimp circling the area emblazoned with an “Illegal Spying Below” message. Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Tenth Amendment Center (TAC) were the activist groups behind the stunt, which aimed to keep the spotlight on the National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance and data collection operations.

The 135-foot blimp was also advertising a new protest website,, launched through a collaboration of over 20 grassroots advocacy groups and Internet firms. The site holds Congress members accountable for what they have (or haven’t) done in the ongoing debate over the NSA’s operations. Last week, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to block funding for some of the NSA’s activities.

“The public needs to be brought into the Congressional debate around surveillance reform happening right now,” EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman said in a press statement. “We’re flying an airship over the Utah data center, which has come to symbolize the NSA’s collect-it-all approach to surveillance, and demanding an end to the mass spying. It’s time for bold action in defense of our privacy.”

In response to requests for more openness, the NSA released its first ever Transparency Report on the same day that the blimp was in the air. The report lists the number of targets affected by some of the NSA’s data collecting operations, though as the term “target” can refer to “an individual person, a group, or an organization composed of multiple individuals or a foreign power” the information isn’t particularly revealing.

For example, in 2013 the NSA issued 131 orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s tap and trace provisions, involving 319 targets. It also issued 19,212 national security letters and 38,832 requests for information from companies such as Google and Apple, though again exact details are not available in the interests of “protecting sensitive classified intelligence and national security information.”

Despite its vagueness, the fact that the report exists at all could be seen as a step in the right direction. As scrutiny and reform of the NSA continues, the German government is planning to switch its telecoms provider in response to some of the surveillance operations that have come to light in the post-Snowden era. The Agency is also involved in several legal battles over data protection, including one with the EFF.

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