Internet privacy advocates gathered both online and off Thursday, using U.S. Independence Day to rally for the "Restore the Fourth" movement — a reference to the Constitutional Amendment that protects citizens against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Riding on the coattails of Edward Snowden’s NSA document drop last month, two organizations — Fight for the Future and Restore the Fourth — have teamed to fight against what they call unconstitutional surveillance by the U.S. government.
As part of their efforts to bring more attention to the issue the groups organized a physical protest Thursday that spanned across dozens of American cities.
The most prominent protests were San Francisco, Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., while smaller gatherings were independently organized by local activists in other areas, organizers said.
By early afternoon, crowds of more than 400 had gathered in New York City and Washington, D.C., the organizers said. They estimate the total turnout will be more than 10,000 nationwide.
Ryan Brown helped organize the San Francisco rally and said between 300 to 800 people had responded to RSVPs through Reddit and Facebook.
It was Brown’s first time leading a protest, but he said he felt compelled to get involved.
“I find the violation by our rights by our government and the violation of our privacy to be disgusting and I’m trying to take every single step I can to combat it,” he said.
Washington's rally meanwhile featured NSA whistle blower Thomas Drake, who released unclassified information to reporters in 2005.
The goal of Thursday’s protests was to spread the word that the American people deserve to know more about government surveillance programs that monitor people in their “most private moments”, said Evan Greer, the campaign manager for Fight for the Future.
Greer said the protest has gotten a lot of support in the last few weeks from the online community.
“The tech community is really rallying behind this and really recognizing that if their users are suspicious of using their services because they think the government could be watching them, that’s a huge hit to their business model,” he said.
The protest started gathering strength on the popular Internet message board site Reddit. Currently, more than a dozen sites, including Imgur, 4chan and WordPress, have signed on to support the protest.
The home page of the website Boing Boing, for example, displayed the following message to the NSA: "Happy 4th of July! Immediately stop your unconstitutional spying on the world's internet users -- The People."
Greer compared the protest to the last year’s virtual fight against SOPA and PIPA, two congressional anti-piracy bills that were dismissed after popular sites like Reddit, Google and Wikipedia took part an Internet-wide blackout to protest the legislation.
In that fight, the Internet Defense League, which is a network of websites that helped coordinate the blackout, raised the “Cat Signal”, a web-inspired twist on the Batman beacon that signals the Internet community to rally together, for last year’s blackout.
Thursday morning, it sent the signal again.
Celebrities like Mark Ruffalo also joined the protest by participating in a “thunder clap,” which Greer explained is when “people donate a Tweet or a Facebook post instead of donating money.”
While Thursday’s protest is the first organized event for Restore the Fourth, they plan to have many more until government officials provide more information about its surveillance operation and commit to a more open dialogue with the American people.
The NSA even addressed the protest in a statement, saying the agency works around the clock to protect the American people.
"The Fourth of July reminds us as Americans of the freedoms and rights all citizens of our country are guaranteed by our Constitution. Among those is freedom of speech, often exercised in protests of various kinds," the statement said. "NSA does not object to any lawful, peaceful protest."