This online surveillance law course may be the most important course ever

While scouting through the upcoming online courses at Stanford, I noticed a Surveillance law course. At first glance — the course did not sound very appealing to me, like oh ugh, do I really want to take a surveillance law course?

online surveillance


Online Surveillance Law Course

Fortunately, I perused the course suggested readings and noted that No Place to Hide and Dragnet Nation was recommended reading. I had already read Greenwald’s No Place to Hide (Kindle edition) and just started reading Angwin’s Dragnet Nation. The recommended reading list by itself definitely piqued my curiosity. Since I was already stoked to sign up for the course (on an interactive basis), I decided to scan the FAQ section at Coursera and was 100 percent sold—  lock, stock, and barrel when I read this:

Is the course technically robust against surveillance?

It can be! If you’d prefer to follow along without creating an account, you can access the “preview” version of the course. For even greater protection, you can load the preview using the Tor anonymizing network. And if you’d prefer to avoid Coursera servers entirely, we’re also hosting noninteractive course content on our own website that’s configured to not log requests. You can access it via HTTPS ( or as a Tor hidden service (http://7vrl523532rjjznj.onion/).

Though Coursera only has six trackers, I found it refreshing that this course included an option (for those who are concerned about online surveillance and privacy) to remain completely anonymous.
Coursera Ghostery Tracking

Tracking Options

I’ve been known to harbor infrequent contemptuous diatribes when a site coerces me to log in with Facebook connect as the sole option. I’ve been known to create pseudo accounts just to read certain articles that can’t be read unless you have authenticated with Facebook first. So, I was genuinely impressed with 27 year old Millennial (Gen-Y), Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist (of technology, security, and privacy) and lawyer at Stanford who offers privacy options to students who wish to access the course outside of Coursera. Nicely done Mr. Mayer!

Why Is This Course Important?

This course runs for six weeks. Though, I am primarily interested in week six regarding the controversial NSA programs — I believe that the course syllabus lays a solid foundation for understanding the fundamentals of surveillance law.

The Syllabus

  • Week 1: Introduction on how surveillance fits into the American legal system and how surveillance issues can be litigated.
  • Week 2: The basics of surveillance law; established police surveillance procedures with telephone technology as the starting point. [Includes constitutional and statutory data safeguards].
  • Week 3: Applying surveillance law to information technology, [Includes email/browser snooping, geo-phone location, and device hacking].
  • Week 4: Compelled assistance to law enforcement. This is another section of the course that I am overly curious about, mainly due to the discussion that will occur regarding the government’s limited ability to mandate backdoors and require decryption. I am a fence sitter on this one.I tend to harbor fears that the government does not really have limited ability to mandate backdoors…
  • Week 5: The structure of foreign intelligence surveillance law with a strong emphasis on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and Executive Order 12333.
  • Week 6: Controversial NSA programs. Conduct/legality with detailed discussion on domestic phone metadata, PRISM, and upstream internet monitoring.

Though Edward Snowden was the precursor to the discourse that continues to flow within the privacy community, the ultimate goal of this entire course is to raise the level of discourse on government surveillance.

Education is Key

I once took a constitutional law course because I felt that I needed to understand our history (and how the constitution should protect our freedoms). I only managed to make it through four weeks of the course due to time constraints, but I was able to take what I needed from the course. That course actually marked a pivotal point in my life — because it forced me to question what it was like to be an American after post 9/11.

Back in 2002 while I was working library systems at Keene State College in New Hampshire, I didn’t really understand all the ghastly ramifications of the Patriot Act. So many Librarians in higher education were consistently fired up over the passage of the Patriot Act, while (shamefacedly) I didn’t have a clue. Years later, I got fired up too, when I realized all the enhanced investigative capabilities that the government had at it’s disposal after such a insidious and hastily-passed Act.

Whether you take a course, self-educate, or investigate alternative media sources — do your research and always question and tear apart the possibilities.

Mainstream Media

The one thing that I’ve learned over time is to not rely upon one news source. I’ve made enemies out of liberal and conservative/neo-conservative friends simply by sharing my thoughts about MSNBC and Fox (faux) news coverage. I never rely upon self-censored mainstream media to inform me of anything substantial in the political realm. I know that mainstream news will probably not be objective, fair, or comprehensive. I’ve learned that if you only watch news that matches your political views (infotainment news), you are not embracing your civic responsibility. Isn’t journalism supposed to be a checkpoint for government (and those who rule in higher places), and not set up to slant information so that it becomes unfavorable for democracy?

Recently, Mayor, Noam Bramson (Rochelle, NY) stated in The Huffington Post:

People are psychologically primed to absorb information that confirms their pre-existing views and to filter out information that challenges those views…these psychological tendencies are now reinforced by a fractured media landscape that offers up news sources finely tailored to affirm what we already believe. Liberals watching MSNBC or conservatives watching Fox News barely need to engage their personal confirmation filters, because the cable channels have already done the filtering for them.

I do not subscribe to cable TV, otherwise I would probably be glued to PBS and the I.D. channel. I figured out years ago that most cable offerings consist of infotainment and stories. I’ve tuned out (I’m on an intellectual flight). The Internet is more appealing, educational, informative, and better suited to my needs.

Taking the course?

The surveillance law course begins next Tuesday! [October 14, 2014]

From the FAQ:

Why is the best (i.e. the NSA) saved for last?

The course begins with police surveillance for several reasons. First, the surrounding law is much better developed—it’s much older, much more transparent, and much more frequently litigated. Second, foreign intelligence law builds upon the framework of police surveillance law; understanding the latter is essential to understanding the former.

Will the course include discussion of current events?

Definitely. Surveillance practices frequently make headlines; we will share our thoughts throughout the course.

Can I repurpose the course materials?

Absolutely. The entire course is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

You can find @jonathanmayer on Twitter and check out his webs here & here.

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