Six Frames against Surveillance

Till Wäscher, School of International and Intercultural Communication & TU Dortmund

For years, privacy advocates had been speculating about a possible “Privacy Chernobyl” – a major scandal that would put the issue of surveillance on the global agenda and create a mass social movement against privacy intrusions committed by governments and corporations.[1] In the summer of 2013, this speculation became reality. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents detailing the mass surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency and its international partners caused – to stick to the nuclear disaster analogy – a temporary meltdown of public trust by citizens around the world.

The Snowden revelations revitalized in the public consciousness an almost forgotten genre of contentious politics – privacy activism. The main objective of this blog series is to identify, analyse, and critically assess the political communication of activists during anti-surveillance campaigns in the first year after the Snowden revelations to better understand the ways in which these issues have been framed by activists, understood by the public, portrayed by the media, and potentially acted upon in a variety of contexts.  

The series is based on the author’s dissertation on political communication tactics of the global privacy community for which he conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with activists from 14 countries. This first post in the series focuses on the core collective action frames against surveillance, articulated by the privacy activist community over the course of four campaigns: “Restore the Fourth/1984 Day” (July-August, 2013), “Stop Watching Us” (October, 2013), “The Day We Fight Back” (February, 2014), and “Reset the Net” (July, 2o14). These were largely on U.S.-centric protests; subsequent pieces in the series will explore how resistance to surveillance has been framed in other parts of the world.


Legal Frames

“Restore the Fourth” was the first attempt to organize and protest surveillance issues after the Snowden revelations. Mainly coordinated through message boards on the social news website Reddit, in more than 80 American cities (as well in Munich, Germany) people took to the streets to protest NSA surveillance. The three core demands of the “Restore the Fourth” network were to reform section 215 of the controversial Patriot Act; the creation of an oversight committee to keep checks on surveillance programs; and initiate accountability measures for public service figures involved in domestic spying activities.

Much of the communication efforts by organizers around the protest framed the issues around a message that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had been violated by the NSA. Focusing on this constitutional principle had not only the effect of evoking patriotic feelings and reaching across the political spectrum in the United States but also to streamline and clarify the core demands of the protesters. As a “Restore the Fourth”-Marketing Coordinator in a preceding “Ask Me Anything” threat proclaimed: “[T]he message is clear, concise, and easily understood/replicated. We are tackling this by using the actual text of the Fourth Amendment as our position.” [2]

Activists showing up at events around the country also embraced this “Constitutionalism” frame package. Activist/protest performer ‘Reverend Billy’ (from the Stop Shopping Choir) dramatically asked the demonstrators at the ‘Restore the Fourth’-rally in New York City to review the constitution and closed his anti-surveillance ‘sermon’ with the phrase “Bill of Rights-luya!”[3]

Go back to the constitution. Put those words in your body. All of those amendments. Say it again and again and again. We want to sing for you right now the First Amendment [Freedom of Speech] because the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment come together to make a DNA of freedom that is unstoppable! [4]

Former congressman Dennis Kucinich addressed the protesters in Washington, D.C. as “Friends of the Constitution” and noted that he always carried a miniature version of the constitution in his pocket because it was “under threat from our own government.”[5] Congressman Alan Grayson underlined the “continuing vitality of the US constitution today” as well as “the beauty of the 4th amendment.”[6] RT4 leader Andrea O’Neill warned that the “degradation of our Fourth Amendment rights can ultimately lead to the degradation of our other civil liberties.”[7] And Mudusar Raza from the Council of American-Islamic Relations compared what he felt was an erosion of basic rights in the US to the Third Reich. Adapting and modifying Martin Niemöllers famous poem, Raza summarized the three core frames into one:

When they came for my Second Amendment rights I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t a gun owner (…) When they came for Third Amendment rights, I didn’t mind troops in my house because I supported the war, and damn it I was a patriot. When they took away peoples’ Fifth Amendment rights I didn’t say anything because those people they were kind of shady and I was involved in anything I’d be okay and damn it I was a patriot. When they came for my first amendment I didn’t say anything, well, because, again, I supported the war and damn it I was a patriot. When they came for my Fourth Amendment and took away my home without due process I couldn’t say anything because I had lost my first. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany. Are we going to let this happen here? (…) Restore the Fourth![8]


Historical Frames

The communications strategies and framing of these early anti-surveillance campaigns, especially “Restore the Fourth” and the subsequent “Stop Watching Us”-rally in Washington, D.C, also were deeply informed by both Colonial history as well as the Civil Rights era. For example, a quote by Senator Frank Church, who in the 1970s had led the famous committee investigating the FBI’s surveillance of Civil Rights activists, was displayed prominently on the official “Stop Watching Us” website.[9] Many of the speakers at these protests referred to historical incidents of spying on political dissidents and activists in order to stress the potentially devastating effects of surveillance on future democratic functioning. In his rap performance, Shahid Buttar, Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, referenced events such as the Palmer Raids of the early 1920s, abuses during the era of McCarthyism and alleged government involvement in the surveillance-related assassinations and attacks on Civil Rights activists.[10] The host of the rally, Kymone Freeman of the National Black LUV Festival, reminded the protest crowd that through monitoring of his daily activities, former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had tried to blackmail Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King into not accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and committing suicide: “This was surveillance!”[11]  Another slogan that was first seen at Restore the Fourth-protests reappeared at the “Stop Watching Us” event: “The answer to 1984 is 1776.”[12]


Orwellian Frames

Another key frame for the messages created by anti-surveillance activists was to compare the scope of the NSA surveillance to the surveillance apparatus described in George Orwell’s fictional dystopia, “1984”.  For example, in a press release, “Restore the Fourth” organizers pointed out that without continued protest, an unfettered, government sanctioned spying apparatus would eventually lead to the erosion of civil liberties and democracy. For activists, “George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a chilling vision of what might lie ahead if we don’t take action.”  Whistleblower and former AT&T employee Mark Klein, who had exposed the collaboration between the government and the telecommunications company, shared with the audience at a “1984 Day”-rally in San Francisco how he had discovered a “Big Brother Machine,” at AT&T designed to copy the entire online data stream. And whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, famous for his leaks of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, also warned the audience of unfettered surveillance. Alluding to the dehumanizing practices of the ruling Party as portrayed by Orwell’s book, Ellsberg claimed that with the ongoing persecution of whistleblowers, the United States was “on the way to the death of humanity.”[13] Individual protestors attending the “Stop Watching Us” event (which featured an Orwellian all-knowing eye as its logo) picked up the theme by carrying posters of laptop screens with the inscription “Unplug Big Brother”.[14]


Global and Transnational Frames

While “Restore the Fourth/1984 Day” was an exclusively American affair, all three subsequent campaigns attempted to present the struggle against surveillance as a global problem that was not confined to the United States. “It’s not just Americans being caught in this dragnet. We need to stand up for the rest of the world too,” Craig Aaron, CEO of the Media Reform NGO Free Press, told the crowd in his speech on the “Stop Watching Us” stage in Washington, D.C.[15] Along with excerpts from the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the official “Stop Watching Us” website featured a quote from the Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei, who had been under constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities for years, expressing his disbelief that “American citizens allow[ed] this [form of mass surveillance] to continue.”[16] The international context also provided the opportunity for the activists to confront the public with the chilling effects that surveillance has traditionally played in authoritarian states. For instance, Tunisian-American human rights activist Waffa Ben Hassine shared with the audience in Washington, D.C. her experience with government surveillance in her country’s capital Tunis: “[W]hen you have [physical and digital forms of surveillance] mixed together – oh, I’m gonna tell you, you’re going to live in fear. And you won’t be expressing yourself. (…) If we don’t stop this right now we’re going to live in fear.”[17] While the international framing is used in this case to address an American audience and to promote domestic policy reform, it was also designed to evoke transnational solidarity.


Encryption and Intersectoral Cooperation

Following two traditional grass roots campaigns with a strong focus on street protests, parts of the activist community believed that the only way to really be safe from government surveillance was to make the public more familiar with privacy-enhancing tools in order to subvert government surveillance through better consumer and producer policies for technology. Edward Snowden strongly supported this general idea and acted as a spokesperson for the “Reset the Net”-campaing of July, 2014. According to Snowden, proposing “technical solutions” was the right way to “shutting down the collection of our online communications.” According to advocates involved in the campaign, the idea appealed to common sense. Through “oppos[ing] mass surveillance by adopting encryption technology”[18] activists and users could bypass the long and uncertain political process by making it impossible or at least significantly harder for government agencies to get access to their data. With “Reset the Net” the activists, it seemed, had discovered a new way “to win against surveillance.”

The Organizers claimed to have set up “Reset The Net” through lessons drawn from the leaked NSA documents. They argued that as they had a better understanding of how programs like PRISM functioned, the solution to governmental intrusions was technological rather than political. “Now that we know how mass surveillance works,” the press release stated, “we know how to stop it”[19] –implying that the previous year of grassroots organizing and protesting had not been the most effective way to stop mass surveillance and could be replaced, or at least supplemented by lobbying and advocacy efforts with ICT companies and other powerful stakeholders involved in technology policy. In order to fully establish widespread protection from surveillance, the activists involved in “Reset the Net” believed they had to work hand in hand with internet companies to promote encryption within both technology design and policy. In theory, the result would be a powerful coalition of activists and companies positioned to resist government surveillance and ensure an encrypted, open, and free Internet.

Just as had been the case with the preceding “The Day We Fight Back”-campaign, eventually Google joined “Reset the Net” as its biggest and most prominent supporter. In a post on their corporate blog announcing their involvement, Google promised to provide users of their popular email service with stronger encryption features in Gmail and also released a code for its web browser allowing encryption (under the working title “end-to-end”). Tech companies, which have become an indispensable part of the post 9/11 government/corporate surveillance apparatus, joined campaigns such as “The Day We Fight Back” and “Reset the Net” because they have an intrinsic interest in shaping the debate about privacy and preserving their business model. While, in principle, they share the privacy activist community’s opposition to government surveillance, the core of their business models involves collecting as much personal information on their users as possible. Thus, teaming up with tech companies at this particular point in time determined that anti-surveillance campaigns would frame governments as the primary antagonist and focus to a lesser extent on the complicity of ICT companies and corporate surveillance. While the participation of, for example, Google in the campaigns, significantly increased the reach of the campaigns, “The Day We Fight Back” and “Reset the Net” did not result in any meaningful privacy enhancements of Google applications. [20]


The Celebrity Whistleblower Frame

With the exception of “Restore the Fourth” and “1984 Day”, the anti-surveillance campaigns in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks largely focused on and celebrated whistleblowers in general and Edward Snowden in particular. The undisputed “big star of the day” of “Stop Watching Us” as The Guardian called him,[21] was naturally Edward Snowden. By the fall of 2013, Snowden, who had given the event his “stamp of approval,”[22] had become the most important symbol of the privacy movement as a whole. For the subsequent “The Day We Fight Back”-campaign, the recently deceased activist Aaron Swartz served as a rallying icon and personification of the anti-surveillance battle.[23]

“Restore the Fourth”, the last of the major anti-surveillance campaigns, was again scheduled to honor the one-year anniversary of the Snowden leaks and was heavily endorsed by Snowden himself, which led one publication to even dub the event  “Edward Snowden Day.”[24] In many ways, ”Reset the Net” became positioned in the media as the anniversary of the Snowden leaks, as outlets covered the campaign by recapping the events from June 2013 and reviewing how the debate over surveillance had evolved since that time.[25] In this way, these advocacy efforts were inextricably linked to Snowden as both icon and activist, providing the opportunity to bring surveillance and privacy issues back into the news cycle and public discourse.  If there had been any uncertainty whether Snowden was merely a more neutral provider of information or an activist himself, “Reset the Net” proved that he was the latter.


Privacy Advocacy Frames: Complications and Consequences

Capitalizing on the shock and media attention generated by the Snowden revelations, activists worked to develop effective collective action frames against surveillance to make privacy concerns more tangible and relevant to the general public. Both the historical as well as the Orwellian frames provided rich historical and cultural reference points and imagery to depict the enormous costs societies pay when individual privacy is harmed. Additionally, Snowden and other whistleblowers served as powerful Che Guevara-like iconographical markers and rallying points within the surveillance protests.

The legal frames used by activists argued that the most effective way to improve the privacy of citizens is to respect existing rights and laws (most notably, in the U.S. case, the Fourth Amendment) or creating new privacy safeguards. These arguments gave protesters a rallying cry and policy agenda that could traverse ideological boundaries and evoke patriotic feelings. However, this frame, while powerful, proved to be a complicated by the fact that the Snowden revelations made clear that governments circumvent preexisting legal checks and balances in order to expand surveillance. While slogans such as “Restore the Fourth” are easy digestible solutions for scaling back government spying, they can obscure causes and effects of 21st century surveillance. Within the context of the opaque and complicated surveillance apparatus, proposing legal remedies could confuse and frustrate the general public. While there were also attempts at transnational deliberation and articulation of universal privacy rights, ultimately these messages of global solidarity were used in service of national legislative aims.

The pivot towards an emphasis on market driven solutions for surveillance, epitomized by the Encryption frame package, in many ways can be seen as a response to the very complicated nature of surveillance advocacy and the inherent difficulties in generating sustained public interest in advocacy for technical, complicated, and secretive legal solutions. By forming temporary alliances with Google, Facebook and Co., privacy activists gave them a PR platform to show the world that they are also concerned about their users’ privacy – rather than to actively challenging their business practices and informing the public about the essential role they have played – voluntarily or not – in the NSA’s regime.

Overall, the various frame packages managed to mobilize a diverse coalition of citizens across the political and religious spectrum, including radical leftists, progressives, liberals, centrists, conservatives, Muslims, and Christians to take a unified stance against surveillance – a rare sight in times of extreme political polarization. But whether people will act on the basis of the anti-surveillance frames and their representations in the media and start resisting surveillance more forcefully remains in question. While some policy goals of the movement were reached, for example the passing of the U.S. Freedom Act in 2015, activists continue to search for ways to frame surveillance as an issue that is affecting citizens personally.

[1]           Cf. Bennett, Colin J., The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance (Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2008), 200.

[2]           “National Organization of Restore the Fourth AMA,”, July, 2, 2013.

[3]           “Restore the Fourth March NYC”

[4]           “Restore the Fourth March NYC.”

[5]           “Statement by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to DC ‘Restore The Fourth’ rally, 7/4/2013,”

[6]           “Statement by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) to DC ‘Restore The Fourth’ rally, 7/4/2013.”

[7]           “Andrea O’Neill (Restore The Fourth DC) speaks at DC ‘Restore The Fourth’ rally, 7/4/2013”

[8]           Mudusar Raza (CAIR-MD) speaks at DC “Restore The Fourth” rally, 7/4/2013.”

[9]           “[The National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.” Cf. “Stop Watching Us” homepage.

[10]          “Rally Against NSA Surveillance”, C-SPAN, October 26, 2013.

[11]           Ibid.

[12]          Cf. “#StopWatchingUs rally against mass surveillance: Live Updates,”, October 26-28, 2013.

[13]          “Rally for Privacy Awareness ‘1984’ on 8/4 Restore the Fourth SF – Part 6.” (emphasis added).

[14]          “Anti-NSA protest calls for end to US spying,” Agence France Presse, October 26, 2013 (via LexisNexis).

[15]          Agence France Presse, “Anti-NSA protest calls for end to US spying.”

[16]          Cf. “Stop Watching Us” homepage.

[17]          C-SPAN, “Rally Against NSA Surveillance.”

[18]          Fight for the Future, “Press Release: Companies & Organizations Announce Plan to ‘Reset the Net,’” May 5, 2014.

[19]          Fight for the Future, “Press Release.”

[20]          Googles promise to integrate end-to-end encryption into their browsers is a prime example: Because Gmail’s business model is to algorithmically scan all incoming and outcoming emails for keywords and market their content to third parties, Google has no rational business interest in promoting real end-to-end encryption that would block itself from identifying the content of the emails. Thus, not surprisingly, the company never followed through on their promise. In their initial blog post from June 2014, they announced to make encryption extensions optional. In a follow-up blog post from December 2014, the company announced that after an initial round of bug fixing “end to end” was still in a very early alpha stage of development. Finally, in February of 2017 Google quietly abandoned the “end-to-end” altogether, announcing it was no longer a “Google Project”. Cf. “Transparency Report: Protecting emails as they travel across the web,” Google Blog, June 3, 2014 (accessed April 15, 2016);  “An Update to End-To-End,” Google Security Blog, December 16, 2014 (accessed April 15, 2016).;  Lucian Armasu, “Google Abandons ‘End-To-End’ Email Encryption Project, Invites Community To Take It Over,” Tom’s Hardware, February 27, 2017.,33745.html.

[21]          Jim Newell, “Thousands gather in Washington for anti-NSA ‘Stop Watching Us’ rally,” The Guardian, October 26, 2013.

[22]          As reported by journalist Erin McPike in her coverage for CNN. Cf.  Segment “Anti-NSA Rally Targets Washington” CNN Newsroom, October 26, 2013, 4:00 PM EST (via LexisNexis Academic Research).

[23]          “On Anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s Tragic Passing, Leading Internet Groups and Online Platforms Announce Day of Activism Against NSA Surveillance.”

[24]          Lambert Strether, “June Fifth: ‘Edward Snowden Day’ Except Not. Yet,” Naked Capitalism, June 7, 2014.

[25]          See for example Levi Sumagaysay, “NSA spying and the Edward Snowden leaks, a year later.” Silicon Beat, June 6, 2014.; Aaron Sankin, “The media genius of Edward Snowden,” The Daily Dot, June 5, 2014.