About 500 people packed into Berkeley's St. John's Presbyterian Church on June 11, days after revelations of a massive National Security Agency electronic surveillance program had hit the news.
They were there for panel talk titled "Our Vanishing Civil Liberties," and the discussion revolved around Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former employee of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who leaked top-secret documents to reveal the scope of the massive NSA spying infrastructure, triggering a firestorm of public debate internationally.
The panel featured Daniel Ellsberg, a Berkeley resident famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic member of parliament whose Twitter account records were sought by the U.S. Justice Department several years ago due to her connection to Wikileaks, the whistleblower organization that published secret U.S. government cables leaked by Pfc. Bradley Manning.
"I have no doubt at all that Snowden did the right thing in revealing it," Ellsberg later told the Guardian in an interview, "at whatever cost he pay himself. He shouldn't have to pay any, very simply. In his case, given what he's revealing, he should not be prosecuted. But he will be, almost surely."
Within days of the revelations, a number of public responses had already sprung up, many originating in the Bay Area. The ACLU filed suit challenging the surveillance program as illegal, arguing that it "violates the First Amendment rights of free speech and association as well as the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment. Online communities mobilized too. As of June 17, more than 200,000 had signed onto an online petition launched by Stop Watching Us, a coalition of 86 civil liberties organizations who drafted an open letter to Congress and decried the surveillance operation as "a stunning abuse of our basic rights."
Mozilla, which has an office in San Francisco, played a key role in launching Stop Watching Us and called for greater transparency. "In the US, these companies are required to respect a court order to share our information with the government, whether they like it or not," the organization pointed out in a press statement. "Mozilla hasn't received any such order to date, but it could happen to us as we build new server-based services in the future." It also pointed out that "the Internet is making it much easier" for intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance, because "There's a lot more data to be had," "the laws are written broadly," and "it's all happening behind closed doors."
Stop Watching Us coalition membership includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Boing Boing, the Center for Democracy and Technology, reddit, The Utility Reform Network, and other organizations with a presence in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, news of the NSA's massive spying endeavor sent shockwaves throughout Silicon Valley, catching some tech company employees off guard. Google CEO Larry Page, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the heads of other tech companies issued statements vigorously denying voluntary participation in PRISM, the program that vacuums up massive communications content flowing between the U.S. and foreign nations via the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.