Renown cryptologist and security specialist Bruce Schneier has joined the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the United States' longest-running and most influential digital rights and civil liberties lobby groups. It's a move that will boost the EFF's intellectual heft in policy debates about online surveillance and privacy issues, as well as their influence in Washington.
The EFF sees Schenier's appointment as particularly important as the organisation learns "more and more" about what they call "the unconstitutional surveillance programs" by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the "depth and breadth" of data the NSA is collecting on the public.
"Bruce is one of America's premiere technologists – the person both experts and the general public turn to when they need answers to tough security questions," said EFF executive director Shari Steele in a statement. "We are very proud to have him join our Board of Directors to help EFF meet the challenges of the years ahead."
Schneier, with his background in the US Department of Defense and strong ties to US military and government information security organisations, will also help dispel the perception in some quarters that the EFF only represents fringe far-libertarian interests. Indeed, Schneier's candid, plain-speaking style moves EFF very much to the centre of the digital debates.
"EFF is one of the leading organisations fighting the government's unconstitutional spying, marshalling legal and technological expertise to battle surveillance in the courtroom and in Congress," said Schneier. "I'm excited to work together with the board and the staff as we learn more about this spying and how we can shut it down."
Schneier needs little introduction to information security professionals. His books Applied Cryptography, Practical Cryptography and Cryptography Engineering are, quite literally, the textbooks on the subject, while Secrets and Lies, Beyond Fear and later works explore the nexus of changing power, politics and the manipulation of the psychology of fear in a time marked by both post-9/11 paranoia and rapidly changing technology.
The timing of Schneier's appointment can be no accident. Both he and the EFF will be acutely aware that the NSA surveillance scandal and the pursuit of whistleblower — or traitor, depending on who you ask — Edward Snowden is at the top of political and technology news, both domestically in the US and internationally.
For one of America's most trusted and best-known cryptographic and security experts to join a civil rights group and say, unequivocally, that the NSA's activities are unconstitutional and must be shut down sends a powerful message.
Moreover, Schneier's ability to speak clearly and simply — simple enough even for a congressional member to understand — will carry considerable weight. His appointment makes it clear that the EFF is intending to arm itself with powerful weapons for a long and difficult policy war.
Each side has powerful arguments.
As America's signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency representing that country's contribution to the Five Eyes alliance, the NSA can argue that its work kept us safe from (all) nuclear annihilation during the cold war, (most) terrorist attacks during the first decade of the 21st century, and (many) online threats now and in the future.
But the EFF can argue that, as we move online, there's a difference in both the scale and scope of the data we create in the digital world when compared with the analog, and that the NSA has not yet demonstrated its trustworthiness in navigating this change.
It will, as I say, be a long and difficult policy war...
EFF was founded in 1990, and describes its mission as being to "defend free speech online, fight illegal surveillance, promote the rights of digital innovators, and work to ensure that the rights and freedoms we enjoy are enhanced, rather than eroded, as our use of technology grows".
In addition to Schneier, EFF's Board of Directors includes John Perry Barlow, Brian Behlendorf, John Buckman, Lorrie Cranor, David Farber, John Gilmore, Brewster Kahle, Pam Samuelson, Brad Templeton, and Jonathan Zittrain.
The organisation has served as a model for similar digital rights lobby groups in other countries, such as Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA).
Contact Stilgherrian at Stil@stilgherrian.com or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian