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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Stickers on Edward Snowden’s Laptop

For online activists around the world, one thing stood out in a photograph published on Sunday by The Guardian: Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about the scope of United States government surveillance, adorned his laptop with stickers showing support for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project.

John Perry Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, proudly drew attention on Twitter to the Guardian image of Mr. Snowden’s laptop.

The foundation, based in San Francisco, is a longstanding civil liberties group that focuses on rights in the online world. The Tor Project provides anonymity services for people to be able to send and receive information under the cloak of secrecy.

Cindy Cohn, the legal director for the foundation, responded to a reporter’s inquiry by saying that the news had broken while she was on a transcontinental flight from San Francisco to Washington. “Man,” she said. “One should never get in the air these days!”

She said that Mr. Snowden’s identity came as a surprise to her and her colleagues at the organization. “I don’t know him â€" I don’t think anybody at E.F.F. does,” she said, though she added that “I can’t confirm that off the top of my head. But we certainly haven’t been working with this,” meaning the revelations about National Security Agency surveillance first published by The Guardian and The Washington Post.

She did acknowledge, however, that the information that Mr. Snowden had revealed could be very helpful in her organization’s lawsuit over government surveillance, Jewel v. N.S.A., a case that was filed in 2008 over the kinds of electronic monitoring that Mr. Snowden’s documents address. The original filing in the case, which is under consideration in Federal District Court in San Francisco, refers to “an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet communications surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (the ‘N.S.A.’) and other defendants in concert with major telecommunications companies.”

Ms. Cohn predicted that Mr. Snowden was “to be a witness in our wiretapping case, and possibly future cases.” Because the Electronic Frontier Foundation expects now to call him as a witness, she added, “I wouldn’t represent him, anyway â€" I’d send him to the whistleblower center,” meaning the National Whistleblowers Center in Washington.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, said, “We have had no known contact with him.” The Tor Project provides anonymous Internet use and helps people circumvent Internet controls under authoritarian regimes, gets financing from institutions including the State Department, the National Science Foundation and the Knight Foundation. The system was first developed at the United States Naval Research Laboratory to protect government secrets. Mr. Lewman said it was not surprising that he would know nothing of Mr. Snowden. “Many people talk to us anonymously or pseudonymously, so we won’t know their public identity anyway,” he said.

As for the fact that Mr. Snowden’s laptop sported an E.F.F. sticker, Ms. Cohn said, “We don’t do any tracking of who gets our stickers â€" they are freely available.” In fact, the stickers can be seen on the set of “The IT Crowd,” the British comedy about the anarchic tech support staff of a large corporation. And so, Ms. Cohn added, “There’s no direct connection that I’m aware of” between Mr. Snowden and the Electronic Frontier Foundation â€" “other than that perhaps he thinks we’re right about government surveillance being illegal.”

“It appears we completely agree that the government has been acting unconstitutionally,” she said.

The federal government has been trying to keep the Electronic Frontier Foundation lawsuit over N.S.A. surveillance from going forward under the so-called state secrets privilege, which can be used to keep national security secrets out of the courts. The foundation has fought those attempts, and officials expect that the recent revelations about the surveillance systems and agreements could help move the case forward.

The government, responding to the new revelations about the surveillance systems, replied on Friday with a request to the judge in the case, Jeffrey S. White, for a delay on any decisions about pending motions until it files a new status report “on further proceedings in this case” by July 12.

The filing stated that, “In recent days there have been several media reports concerning alleged surveillance activities,” including those about the order in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Those news reports, the filing said, led the director of national intelligence to order that “certain information related to the ‘business records’ provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act be declassified and immediately released to the public.”

The government asked Judge White to “grant the government time to consider the effect on the pending motions of the government’s decision to declassify certain information, and to consult with plaintiffs concerning the matter.”

John Schwartz writes as @jswatz on Twitter.