WASHINGTON (AFP) - Several thousand protesters gathered on Saturday in Washington to demand a new American law limiting the National Security Agency's surveillance programs seen as encroaching on private life.
The protest comes amid a widening scandal revealing sweeping US surveillance on the communications of ordinary citizens and global leaders that has sparked outrage worldwide.
Exactly 12 years to the day after Congress passed the Patriot Act to expand anti-terror intelligence gathering in the wake of the Sept 11 attacks, the protesters called for an end to "mass spying." "Hey hey, ho ho, the NSA has got to go," chanted the protesters, estimated to number 4,500 people according to organisers.
To cries of "stop secret government, stop US spying, stop lying," the demonstrators brandished banners reading "stop watching us" under the windows of the US Capitol that houses Congress.
They handed to Congress an online petition signed by 575,000 people urging lawmakers to "reveal the full extent of the NSA's spying programmes." The agency has been under fire by critics since fugitive leaker Edward Snowden revealed the NSA's vast snooping on Internet searches and telephone records of millions of Americans and top world leaders, including from stalwart allies France and Germany.
"It's not just Americans being caught in this dragnet. We need to stand up for the rest of the world too," Free Press media and technology advocacy group president and chief executive Craig Aaron told the crowd.
"It's not about right and left; it's about right and wrong." Mr Trevor Timm, 28, of the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Saturday was the first time since the NSA crisis broke out that people had come together to defend their privacy.
"American public opinion has completely changed regarding NSA and privacy," said Mr Timm.
President Barack "Obama said a lot of things, now we need to see actions," added Mr Timm, who wore a t-shirt that read "stop watching us." Nearby, another activist brandished a poster that showed a computer whose screen bore the inscription "Unplug Big Brother."
Mr Timm's group was among 100 organisations participating in a coalition that is pressuring Congress for legislative reform to improve privacy.
In the wake of the scandal, Mr Obama unveiled a series of measures in August to ensure more transparency in surveillance programmes, including the one that has most shocked the American public by collecting metadata from telephone records.
Congress plans to hold new hearings on the surveillance programs in the coming weeks and several bills are being drafted to amend the system.
"Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA's hands," Snowden himself said in a message to the protesters.
"Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They're wrong." A number of protesters, most of whom were in their twenties, paid tribute to the former NSA contractor they hail as a "whistleblower" for revealing the secretive spying programmes.
Snowden has taken refuge in Russia to avoid likely legal incrimination in the United States.