On Tuesday night, vestiges of the Occupy movement joined forces with Fight for the Future, an Internet freedom nonprofit, to debut a new video to protest the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices. But it wasn’t your regular debut. While you can see the video on the usual Internet channels (and above), this viewing took place on the side of a New York University building.
At 9 p.m., a crowd of activists and college students gathered in lower Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, where organizers passed out popcorn and sign-ups for bus trips down to a larger show of dissent in Washington, D.C. on October 26. No one had been told where the group would be unveiling the film, which had been crowdfunded via an $8,000 Indidgogo campaign and enlisted the voice-over talents of Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly (of Lost fame).
At around 9:30 p.m., Fight for the Future organizers and environmental activists from Times Up! shifted the protesters over to the Kimmel Center for University Life, which abuts the park. A crowd of 70 to 80 protesters watched from the sidewalk as the five-minute piece delivered a spiffy, yet straightforward, account of some of the revelations delivered to the public by Edward Snowden in July. Against footage from the likes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Big Lebowski, Willy Wonka, and other iconic classics, narrator Lilly argues that far-reaching NSA surveillance programs like PRISM and XKeyscore contradict the Fourth Amendment right to privacy as guaranteed by the nation’s founding fathers. She also briefly explains the evolution of such policies since the PATRIOT Act, enacted in 2001.
“Government surveillance has gone on for decades, but things got a lot worse in 2001, when the US Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, giving secret FISA courts more authority to grant surveillance requests on a large scale,” the video says. “The U.S. government has turned the Internet we love into something it was never intended to be: A tool for surveilling everyone.”
In order to display the video on the Kimmel Center’s wall, Fight for the Future teamed up with Occupy Wall Street’s Illuminator, a group of projectionists originally launched by activist Mark Read. During Occupy’s Brooklyn Bridge protests of November 2011, Read and his team used a van specially retrofitted with a periscoping platform, a 1,500-watt inverter, and a deep-cell marine battery to display the “Occupy Bat Signal” on the side of a skyscraper. This time, the Illuminator projected from a new vehicle called the “Green Lumen,” a New York City pedicab the team had hacked the help of the Madagascar Institute’s Chris Hackett.
“Fight for the Future is doing a lot of great work for NSA awareness, which is something that I feel really passionate about,” explained Kyle Depew, an Illuminator organizer. “So I have this tool of projection, and I wanted to support them in getting this out there,” he said as the crew, anticipating police, dismantled the projector after the screening.
In 2012, Tumblr let Fight for the Future borrow its Manhattan offices in order to organize the online SOPA shutdown protests, which Google joined. This year, however, Fight for the Future’s NSA video named several large tech companies, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Amazon, as avenues through which the U.S. government tracks its citizens.
“We talked to a wide variety of companies in the tech community. We did a protest in July that got a great amount of support from WordPress, and Namecheap, and Imgur, and 4chan,” said Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s campaign manager. “One of the things we’re seeing is that larger companies that have grown to the size where they’re maybe not as accountable to their users anymore are not as willing to take a stand on this issue as smaller ones.”
Greer added that organizers were inspired by secret email service Lavabit’s stand against government surveillance,. “We want to see the whole tech community rally around this,” he said. “It’s certainly an issue that affects any tech company based in the United States.”