SUPPORT GROUPS HELP cult and gang members break free of their former lives. Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous help addicts overcome their dependencies. And now one group of privacy campaigners wants to offer its target audience an escape route for what it sees as a equally insidious trap: Their jobs working for intelligence agencies like the NSA.
On Monday, a group of Berlin-based anti-surveillance activists launched Intelexit, a campaign to encourage employees of the NSA and British spy agency GCHQ to reconsider the morality of their spy work and to persuade them to quit. They planned to kick the project off with aseries of billboards strategically posted near intelligence agency buildings around the world. One, reading “listen to your heart, not to private phone calls,” was to be installed next to the Dagger Complex, a military base and NSA outpost in Darmstadt, Germany, the group told WIRED. Another, with the text “the intelligence community needs a backdoor,” will appear outside GCHQ’s Cheltenham, UK headquarters, playing on the UK and US governments’ demands for a “backdoor” system to allow the decryption of citizens’ encrypted communications. A third sign, pictured above, is meant to be affixed to a van patrolling the area around the NSA’s Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, where the activists today plan to hand out fliers to employees with information on where they can get support and counseling if they choose to leave the agency.
“We know for a fact that there are many, many people working there who are conflicted, anxious and ultimately completely against what these agencies are doing,” says Ariel Fischer, a pseudonymous spokesperson for the Intelexit group, an offshoot of the social activism collective called Peng. “If more of those individuals start realizing that they can take a stand, and that they have support from the outside world, well, then maybe a few people will be compelled to act on their principles.”
The campaign, says Fischer, is set to continue tomorrow and Wednesday with blasts of faxes, emails, and phone calls to NSA numbers and addresses. (Fischer says the group acquired an internal NSA contact list from a source she declined to name.) The group’s website features a set of arguments against working in surveillance, a tool for composing a resignation letter based on a survey of principles an intelligence employee can fill out, and a video featuring testimonials from figures like crypto guru Bruce Schneier and NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake.
Drake, an ex-NSA senior analyst who in 2005 blew the whistle on the agency’s financially disastrous, privacy-invasive Trailblazer program, says he joined the group to support fellow conscientious objectors. Drake faced a serious backlash after his own ethical objections to that massive post-9/11 contractor project: He was indicted for leaking classified documents and forced out of the NSA, losing his clearance and his career, only to have the charges reduced to a misdemeanor after it was determined he never actually gave classified data to a reporter. But he hopes his own difficult experience will show other NSA agents with moral misgivings that they are not alone. “In some cases you do need a mirror that shows you that you have the choice to leave,” Drake said in a phone interview with WIRED. “And knowing that there are people who have gone through this before helps make that choice.”
The NSA didn’t immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment on the Intelexit campaign. But a GCHQ spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency “has several formal lines of accountability and a culture and ethos of high ethical standards among our workforce.” The statement also argues that GCHQ doesn’t actually do anything illegal or immoral, and that staff can report any concerns they do have to managers or to GCHQ’s own counselors.
“The work of GCHQ is carried out within a strict legal framework and there is no question of anyone being asked to do anything unlawful or which they consider to be unethical,” the statement reads. “GCHQ actively encourages staff to discuss any concerns they might have about their work and we pride ourselves on the structures we have in place to support this.”
Intelexit’s Fischer counters that agencies like the NSA and GCHQ enable mass surveillance—like GCHQ’s Karma Police program to understand the web-browsing habits of “every visible user on the Internet,” which was only detailed last week—and gather the intelligence that enables drone warfare, both of which she considers immoral. And it’s questionable whether official agency reporting systems offered any help to past whistleblowers like Drake, who in 2002 helped assemble a critique of Trailblazer sent to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, or Snowden, who claims he raised his mass surveillance concerns with managers more than 10 times before leaking documents.
Fischer adds that the idea of Intelexit isn’t to demonize or attack the intelligence agencies but to humanize them—to appeal to the morality of the humans that compose them. “We make a clear difference between individuals and the structures they are part of,” she says. “We want to meet our surveillers eye to eye, and say ‘We can help you.’”
Just how effective a project like Intelexit might be is far from clear. For all its idealism, the campaign’s chances of effecting any significant exodus of intel employees are slim. The NSA’s difficulties with moraleand recruiting in the wake of Edward Snowden’s mass surveillance revelations are no secret. But for every Snowden or Drake, there are no doubt many thousands of NSA and GCHQ employees who see their work as both moral and necessary, and just as many who treat it as a workaday job without considering its ethical implications.
But Fischer says that cases like Snowden’s, Drake and Army intelligence leaker Chelsea Manning give Intelexit hope that there’s an audience for its message. If it can lead even a small number of NSA and GCHQ staffers to reconsider their work, Fischer says, she’ll consider the project a success. “We have seen a shift in the last years of people leaving, people blowing the whistle, even in the face of great repression and we wanted to support that,” she says. “If there is a backdoor and people start leaving, and people start talking, and the public starts reacting, they will be forced to change.”