NSA Scandals Continued: On to the Outrage

In the last NSA post, I did a crash course on the current NSA scandals and why the programs we’re discussing, PRISM and Boundless Informant, are different from past cases dealing with surveillance. Now we’re going to dig a little deeper into why you should be really, really upset about this.

1. It’s invasive. This should be fairly obvious based on all of the information out there, including my last post. But to quickly summarize, these programs give the government access to your emails, chats, and searches, regardless of whether or not you’re involved in any kind of criminal investigation. And it gives them your IP address, which can give them your location.

Of course, this has led to people saying things like, “Well, if you have nothing to hide/are not doing anything illegal, then it shouldn’t matter.” First off, thanks for your complete lack of concern for civil liberties, guys. It’s admirable. Second, there are several reasons why you are totally wrong and probably have not been paying attention to anything our justice department does lately. Do you ever actually read a website’s terms of use agreement? Neither do I. But violating it can be a felony. So better start reading the fine print. Copy music from a friend’s computer or CD? Breaking the law. And the Justice Department has been cracking down on cyber crimes exactly like that.

I would also remind you that it’s not like the government hasn’t abused surveillance powers before. Does the name Richard Nixon ring a bell? He used our intelligence apparatus to spy on activists and political opponents. (Coincidentally, the FBI and Homeland Security, in cooperation with the owners of the Keystone XL pipeline, have been training their operatives to treat activists protesting the pipeline as eco-terrorists. They want to hold signs in public places as a form of protest? Oh the humanity. Stop them in the name of national security!)

And while you might have warm fuzzy feelings for Obama (hey, I used to as well, before he started being such a huge disappointment,) he’s not the only one personally looking at this data. It’s a lot of other people, including many who are not public sector civil servants at all, but private contractors.

Then there is the fact that our technology is a real-time geo-locator. In 2008 alone, Sprint got 8 million government requests to real time location of their customers. That’s just one company. How many where there total? The government isn’t just checking to see if you’re emailing a sketchy Yemeni cleric. They can also be following your actual physical movements. And not just of a handful of people.


2. Its legality only makes it more terrifying. The President has been keen to try to play down concerns over the programs by saying that Congress was briefed on them and the judicial system approved them. So this has gone through all three branches of government and is in fact legal.

But let’s really look at that legality. Some in Congress are claiming that they were not actually briefed on the programs. And since the leaks there have been a flurry of congressional briefings, so apparently there is still a lot of ground to cover in presenting these programs to the legislature. And that criticism is coming from the President’s own party.

And then there are the FISA courts. Here’s the thing about those: besides being secret, they’re non-adversarial. So when you see courtroom dramas with two competing lawyers interpreting events or law, that is an example of the adversarial system upon which our justice system is mostly based. Being non-adversarial means that the lawyers arguing in favor of PRISM, Boundless Informant, and any other secret surveillance programs are heard, and then the judges rule. No one speaks on behalf of the subject of surveillance, which in this case is the entire American public.

And in the past two years, the court has approved every single request it has gotten. Since 2002, the court has always received over 1,000 requests a year and never blocked more than 4 of them in a given year.

So yeah. Seems like they’re doing a lot of really intense oversight.


3. There is no evidence to support the justification of this program. We are being assured that these programs have foiled plots and saved lives. You know when else we’ve heard that? When the Bush Administration was conducting “enhanced interrogation,” better known to anyone with actual ethical standards as torture. And then we found out that was false. (Well, some people apparently didn’t get the memo. Looking at you, Cheney.) So when this administration, which also promised to be the most transparent ever and has reneged on that, promises that these programs are giving us valuable intelligence and saving American lives, I’m skeptical, to say the least. And it doesn’t exactly help that…


4. The NSA has lied to us about these programs. James Clapper, the national director of intelligence, told a congressional hearing that the NSA does not collect data on Americans. Specifically, he was asked: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper said no. But of course, as we just found out, they do. So that also seems really good for the whole “there’s plenty of totally legit oversight of these programs, guys,” argument. Nothing says submitting to intensive oversight like lying to Congress.


5. Precedent. As previously mentioned, you might just really personally like and trust President Obama. And after listening to one of his speeches, it’s hard not to. But even if that is one of the reasons you’re not objecting to PRISM and Boundless Informant, here’s an important fact about the U.S. to remember: we have term limits. In three years, Obama will not be our president anymore. But whoever replaces him will have these exact same powers at their disposal. When we give an executive more power, that power doesn’t end with his term. It passes on to the next executive, unless we take legislative action to diminish these powers. Maybe you still won’t be worried if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president. But sooner or later, that office is going to pass to someone you don’t like. And they will also be monitoring whom you call, when, for how long, and where you go.


6. The inherent unreliability of “pattern of life activity” intel. One of the comparison that came to my mind thinking about these programs was that of the signature strikes used to kill suspected militants abroad. I say that not because I think the government is going to start launching drone strikes on American civilians within our own borders, but rather because the signature strike deals out lethal “justice” based essentially on the same kind of metadata being collected by PRISM.

A signature strike is the term for when a strike is authorized against a target whose identity is unknown, but whose travels, communications, and other surveilled activities cause authorities to believe he is a militant. Just as this has led to civilian deaths, including that of a 16 year-old American whose father was, unfortunately, engaged in terrorism in Yemen, PRISM could lead to investigation and detention of innocents here in the U.S. While we may want to believe that technology makes mistakes less common, it has most certainly not removed them entirely from our investigations, as the people of Yemen, Pakistan, and the other countries we have used drones in can attest.

President Obama has told us that we can’t have 100% security and 100% privacy. But events like the Boston bombing show that we can’t have 100% security anyway. Sometimes guilty people don’t fit our “pattern of life activity” expectations, and sometimes innocent people do. Sometimes those who wish to harm us are acting alone, or plotting in ways that metadata cannot reveal. 100% security is a pipe dream, no matter what we do. So they might as well let us hold on to some of our privacy.


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