It was one of those emails you never want to get.
Coming just weeks after Edward Snowden began sharing details about the National Security Administration’s secret spy programs — I learned directly the NSA was also watching me.
In early July, I put my limited graphic design skills to work, replacing the 50 stars on an American Flag with the seals of 50 federal departments, agencies and bureaus either known or highly suspected of spying on the public.
The name I gave it: The United State of Surveillance.
The design quickly spread online, largely thanks to Reddit. Within 24 hours, it was the top link of the day on several subreddits, including the NSA-inspired r/restorethefourth.
Now, I usually end up with images that are close to 80MB in size (that’s a lot — generally movie-poster size, in full resolution). It’s a lot to upload unless I buy space on the Internet, so I would upload my designs to Zazzle, where someone can choose to put it on a poster, T-shirt, or whatever else Zazzle sold.
But I didn’t expect they’d remove a design made entirely of taxpayer-funded federal government seals.
“Your product contained content which infringes upon the intellectual property rights of National Security Agency (NSA),” read the email, from “Mike” at Zazzle’s “content management team.”
“We have been contacted by legal representatives from the National Security Agency, and at their request, to remove products which infringe upon their rights from the Zazzle Marketplace,” the email read.
What images was the NSA upset about? The agency’s “logo, full name and its acronym (NSA).”
That’s right, the NSA wanted my permission to use its seal — or even its name.
A public agency at the center of the biggest privacy scandal ever had lawyers to silence criticism, using obscure laws that did not even apply.
I had broken the law, in the NSA’s eyes, and they see all. It left me with a certain degree of anxiety — mixed with anger that such a claim could be used, when it was so obviously an abuse of the spirit (and letter) of the law.
Investigative reporter Ben Swann reported the same phenomenon about a month later, when libertarian-leaning apparel company LibertyManiacs also had its NSA-inspired designs booted from Zazzle.
Why did Zazzle do this? The CEO of the company failed to respond to my message, but the customer service team eventually did.
“The representative of the National Security Agency contacted Zazzle to remove designs bearing the National Security Agency seal, the text ‘NSA’, and the text ‘National Security Agency’. All products bearing these designs are in direct violation of Public Law 86-36.”
That law, laid out by the NSA, states, in Section 15(a):
No person may, except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency, knowingly use the words ‘National Security Agency’, the initials ‘NSA’, the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words, initials, or seal in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.
Now, there’s a lot in this sentence (believe it or not, it’s just one sentence), but the easy part is the qualifier at the end.
It’s illegal to use the NSA name to convey “that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.”
Now, the American flag design I made clearly isn’t an official document. I dare say, no one would think — even could think — such a clearly negative portrayal of the NSA (and of the other 49 other divisions included) is “approved” or “endorsed” by the same group.
In a line, here’s the logic: “Someone might think we’re criticizing our own existence. Therefore, you’re criticism is illegal.”
“I find it troubling that Zazzle removed my work after getting a notice, without any substantiation of why that image would not be public and therefore eligible for open use,” I wrote back to Zazzle, but to no avail.
LibertyManiac’s NSA T-shirt design spoofed the NSA logo, with the slogan, “The only part of the government that actually listens.”
Just like that, “within an hour or two,” as the company founder Dan McCall put it, the NSA had found him, and threatened Zazzle with a lawsuit unless it was removed.
My situation got even better. Because I included other agency seals, I got the attention of another omnipresent federal department.
“In addition,” Zazzle said in its explanation email, “the design contained an image which infringed upon intellectual property of U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
That infringement, assumedly, is the department’s seal (located on the second row, all the way to the left).
“Total crap,” said a nationally recognized First Amendment attorney, suggesting I file a civil action for deprivation of rights under U.S. Code Section 1983.
“Someone should sue.”
But who’s ballsy enough to sue a government that has admitted it already has every secret about you? Who wants their life ruined just to share a digital picture?
Is there any American citizen strong enough to fight back?
More importantly, is there anyone brave enough?