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Antisurveillance group keeps eye on US government, tech industry

Leaders consider lobbying over privacy rights

“My job is to make sure your constitutional rights make it into the digital age,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director (seated), shown at the EFF offices with fellow attorneys.

Peter DaSilva/Washington post

“My job is to make sure your constitutional rights make it into the digital age,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director (seated), shown at the EFF offices with fellow attorneys.

SAN FRANCISCO — A jolt of pride and panic flashed through the Electronic Frontier Foundation when the first images of Edward Snowden appeared, showing a sandy-haired young man with glasses, a budding goatee and a bright red sticker on his laptop computer proclaiming, ‘‘I Support Online Rights.’’

The sticker was part of the membership kit for EFF, a leading opponent of government surveillance, but one used to operating beyond the spotlight. Some of its leaders feared Snowden’s public embrace would thrust it to the middle of a blazing Washington scandal just as the government was looking for someone to blame.

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‘‘My first thought was: This is attention we don’t need,’’ said John Gilmore, a tech millionaire who helped found EFF. ‘‘In a sense, we were dragged into this by that sticker.’’

That was June. Four months later, worries that EFF would be cast as aiding and abetting the enemy have eased. Instead, the foundation’s donations have surged by a factor of 10. It has won victories in court, forcing the release of secret documents. Congress has begun considering bills that would curb surveillance, and polls show privacy concerns running higher than at any point since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This political momentum has brought EFF to a crossroads. Rooted in San Francisco’s counterculture idealism and tech-industry ferment, the foundation has long shunned the dirty work of legislative politics. ‘‘We are zealots. We don’t play the compromise game,’’ said Shari Steele, EFF’s executive director.

But the foundation’s allies and even some of its own staff wonder if EFF is ready to capitalize on a potentially historic moment. Can a band of lawyers and technologists — working from a brightly lit office emblazoned with free speech slogans and dark warnings about the government — mount an effective fight in Washington, the home turf of what it calls ‘‘the surveillance state”?

The question is complicated by EFF’s own history, dating to a painful stretch in the 1990s when it was based in the nation’s capital and sought to be a lobbying force there. Its members clashed over compromises inherent in Beltway-style politics, and the most fervent idealists fled with the organization to the West Coast.

More than a decade later, EFF is much larger, and so, arguably, are the stakes. The government’s surveillance tools have grown steadily more powerful and its legal authorities more expansive. Helping reverse those trends may require a foundation led by outsiders to do something they loathe: Play the inside game on Capitol Hill.

‘‘I’d like to see them back,’’ said Christopher Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘‘Washington would be better if they were here.’’

The foundation was born in 1990 in Cambridge, Mass., as something of a legal defense fund for hackers amid a federal crackdown on alleged computer crimes. It moved to Washington two years later.

EFF arrived in San Francisco in 1995 with little money and few staffers. But it found a home in the Mission District, a short drive from Silicon Valley. The move brought the latest shift in the group’s personality.

Having started as a public interest law firm and dabbled in lobbying, EFF evolved into something more like a civil liberties think tank that happened to employ teams of crack technologists and grass-roots political activists.

Legal director Cindy Cohn said, ‘‘My job is to make sure your constitutional rights make it into the digital age.’’ But that mission is defined broadly, involving work on copyright law, government transparency, net neutrality, and cryptography.

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