Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), delivered the keynote address in front of an enthusiastic, capacity crowd at the ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago recently. The keynote was sponsored by Thomson Reuters WestlawTM.

According to its website, the EFF is a nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. The EFF champions user privacy, free expression and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism and technology development. Cohn explained that the EFF uses three strategies – litigation, activism and building technology – to achieve the primary goal of ensuring individuals’ rights go with them when they go online.

In her address, Cohn tackled government spying and collection of data, specifically the FBI/Apple controversy and Jewel v. NSA, in which the EFF sued the NSA on behalf of AT&T customers to stop what they say is illegal, unconstitutional and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records. She detailed how the government collects all information first, or “upstream,” by intercepting Internet cables, or “backbone,” and then filtering the information to conduct specific searches.  The government justifies its actions by arguing that since no specific information is initially targeted for collection, there is no violation of the Fourth Amendment.

She explained that the main argument lies in the initial point of where the copy is made of all data prior to when it is filtered. She said the government thinks it’s okay because no human eyes are used and, like a dog sniff test, they only find the items targeted. “Government sniff test arguments do not pass the sniff test,” she said.

Cohn said there is a need for more encryption and security to protect citizens’ data and information. “Liberty depends on people having a zone of privacy whether they’re online or offline,” she declared.

Cohn concluded by encouraging the audience to join the fight and keep this issue front of mind.

This post was written by Juliana Bryarly.