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Prairie Pop: Who’s watching big brother?


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Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Director Cindy Cohn (shown here on the Colbert Report), sits down with Little Village to talk electronic surveillance.

Iowa native and UI alum Cindy Cohn is the Legal Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The National Law Journal named her one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America in 2013, noting, “if Big Brother is watching, he better look out for Cindy Cohn.” On Saturday, March 1—at noon in Meeting Room A in the Iowa City Public Library—she will be speaking as part of a panel on privacy and electronic surveillance with UI law professor, former FCC commissioner and fellow Iowa native Nicholas Johnson. I will be moderating the panel, which is part of the “Community Conversations” series sponsored by UI’s Department of Communication Studies (where I am a Professor of Ass-Kicking).

Little Village: As Legal Director of EFF, what are your duties, and what cases relating to electronic surveillance has EFF been involved in?

Cindy Cohn: I’m the leader of a team of 15 crack attorneys, so in a sense I just do my best to herd a very smart group of cats. EFF has been handling cases arising from the NSA spying since 2006, including three cases (two of which are still pending) that are trying to stop the spying. We’ve also done a significant amount of work under the Freedom of Information Act to shed light on the processes and legal opinions that support the spying. Finally, we handled a challenge to the National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act, where we successfully convinced a judge to declare NSLs unconstitutional. That case is currently on appeal.

LV: What makes electronic surveillance—and in particular, warrantless wiretapping and data mining—one of the most significant issues of our time?

CC: Our democratic processes depend on people being able to learn, communicate and organize without the fear of government looking over our shoulder. From our own independence movement in 1776 to the civil rights movement to the organization against the Vietnam War, change depended on people starting from a private conversation about the need for change. A functioning democracy also depends on one branch of government not being able to spy on the other two. And quite apart from politics, the ability to explore new ideas, especially ideas outside the mainstream, often requires privacy. Electronic surveillance threatens these foundations of a free people.

LV: Many commentators have suggested that there is a certain amount of public “fatigue” over this issue, and polls seem to be supporting this notion. What can be done to make this issue feel more urgent for Americans?

CC: Well, each poll also shows an increase in people who think the NSA has gone too far, so while people may be fatigued, they are also becoming more certain that the NSA needs to be reined in. Our goal is to keep organizing times for people to make their voices heard … We need people to step up when, for instance, a bill is coming up for a vote (Leahy/Sensennbrenner’s USA Freedom Act is a step in the right direction, the Feinstein/Rogers bill is awful and must be stopped) or when a court case is heard and decided.

LV: Our Communication Studies “Community Conversations” panel is being held in the Iowa City Public Library. Can you talk about the prominent role that librarians have played in defending privacy—especially in the electronic age?

CC: Librarians are the unsung heroes of our freedom. They have long recognized that freedom of thought requires privacy of intellectual inquiry, and have long had a practice of not keeping records of the books checked out by patrons so that those cannot be made available to law enforcement or third parties in litigation. They also stood up against the Patriot Act. The original fights were about the use of Section 215 (now used for the telephone records programs) to gain library records.

LV: Lastly, what is your connection to Iowa City, and what role did this community play in shaping you as the person you are today? 

CC: Iowa City is where I became who I am. I came from Newton as a freshman and discovered a whole world of ideas, music, science, computers and of course literature. I was an English major and loved every minute of it, but also took several computer science classes. Lastly, I learned to bartend so that I’d have something to fall back on if this Internet thing ever falls apart.

Little Village columnist Kembrew McLeod is eavesdropping on your coffee shop conversations.

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