Why NSA surveillance is worse than you’ve ever imagined

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Last sum­mer, after months of encrypt­ed emails, I spent three days in Moscow hang­ing out with Edward Snow­den for a Wired cov­er sto­ry. Over pep­per­oni piz­za, he told me that what final­ly drove him to leave his coun­try and become a whistle­blow­er was his con­vic­tion that the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency was con­duct­ing ille­gal sur­veil­lance on every Amer­i­can. Thurs­day, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit Court of Appeals in New York agreed with him.

In a long-await­ed opin­ion, the three-judge pan­el ruled that the NSA pro­gram that secret­ly inter­cepts the tele­phone meta­da­ta of every Amer­i­can — who calls whom and when — was ille­gal. As a plain­tiff with Christo­pher Hitchens and sev­er­al oth­ers in the orig­i­nal ACLU law­suit against the NSA, dis­missed by anoth­er appeals court on a tech­ni­cal­i­ty, I had a great deal of per­son­al sat­is­fac­tion.

It’s now up to Con­gress to vote on whether or not to mod­i­fy the law and con­tin­ue the pro­gram, or let it die once and for all. Law­mak­ers must vote on this mat­ter by June 1, when they need to reau­tho­rize the Patri­ot Act.

Edward Snowden during an interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, June 6, 2013. WIKIPEDIA/Screenshot of a Laura Poitras film by Praxis Films

Edward Snow­den dur­ing an inter­view with Glenn Green­wald and Lau­ra Poitras, June 6, 2013. WIKIPEDIA/Screenshot of a Lau­ra Poitras film by Prax­is Films

A key fac­tor in that deci­sion is the Amer­i­can public’s atti­tude toward sur­veil­lance. Snowden’s rev­e­la­tions have clear­ly made a change in that atti­tude. In a PEW 2006 sur­vey, for exam­ple, after the New York Times’ James Risen and Eric Licht­blau revealed the agency’s war­rant­less eaves­drop­ping activ­i­ties, 51 per­cent of the pub­lic still viewed the NSA’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams as accept­able, while 47 per­cent found them unac­cept­able.

After Snowden’s rev­e­la­tions, those num­bers reversed. A PEW sur­vey in March revealed that 52 per­cent of the pub­lic is now con­cerned about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance, while 46 per­cent is not.

Giv­en the vast amount of rev­e­la­tions about NSA abus­es, it is some­what sur­pris­ing that just slight­ly more than a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans seem con­cerned about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance. Which leads to the ques­tion of why? Is there any kind of rev­e­la­tion that might push the poll num­bers heav­i­ly against the NSA’s spy­ing pro­grams? Has secu­ri­ty ful­ly trumped pri­va­cy as far as the Amer­i­can pub­lic is con­cerned? Or is there some pro­gram that would spark gen­uine pub­lic out­rage?

Few peo­ple, for exam­ple, are aware that a NSA pro­gram known as TREASUREMAP is being devel­oped to con­tin­u­ous­ly map every Inter­net con­nec­tion — cell­phones, lap­tops, tablets — of every­one on the plan­et, includ­ing Amer­i­cans.

Map the entire Inter­net,” says the top secret NSA slide. “Any device, any­where, all the time.” It adds that the pro­gram will allow “Com­put­er Attack/Exploit Plan­ning” as well as “Net­work Recon­nais­sance.”

One rea­son for the public’s luke­warm con­cern is what might be called NSA fatigue. There is now a sort of accep­tance of high­ly intru­sive sur­veil­lance as the new nor­mal, the result of a bom­bard­ment of news sto­ries on the top­ic.

I asked Snow­den about this. “It does become the prob­lem of one death is a tragedy and a mil­lion is a sta­tis­tic,” he replied, “where today we have the vio­la­tion of one person’s rights is a tragedy and the vio­la­tion of a mil­lion is a sta­tis­tic. The NSA is vio­lat­ing the rights of every Amer­i­can cit­i­zen every day on a com­pre­hen­sive and ongo­ing basis. And that can numb us. That can leave us feel­ing dis­em­pow­ered, dis­en­fran­chised.”

An illustration picture shows the logos of Google and Yahoo connected with LAN cables in a Berlin office, October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski​

An illus­tra­tion pic­ture shows the logos of Google and Yahoo con­nect­ed with LAN cables in a Berlin office, Octo­ber 31, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski​

In the same way, at the start of a war, the num­bers of Amer­i­cans killed are front-page sto­ries, no mat­ter how small. But two years into the con­flict, the num­bers, even if far greater, are usu­al­ly buried deep inside a paper or far down a news site’s home page.

In addi­tion, sto­ries about NSA sur­veil­lance face the added bur­den of being tech­ni­cal­ly com­plex, involv­ing eye-glaz­ing descrip­tions of sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­cep­tion tech­niques and ana­lyt­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties. Though they may affect vir­tu­al­ly every Amer­i­can, such as the tele­phone meta­da­ta pro­gram, because of the enor­mous secre­cy involved, it is dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic vic­tims.

The way the sur­veil­lance sto­ry appeared also decreased its poten­tial impact. Those giv­en cus­tody of the doc­u­ments decid­ed to spread the wealth for a more demo­c­ra­t­ic assess­ment of the rev­e­la­tions. They dis­trib­uted them through a wide vari­ety of media — from start-up Web pub­li­ca­tions to lead­ing for­eign news­pa­pers.

One doc­u­ment from the NSA direc­tor, for exam­ple, indi­cates that the agency was spy­ing on vis­its to porn sites by peo­ple, mak­ing no dis­tinc­tion between for­eign­ers and “U.S. per­sons,” U.S. cit­i­zens or per­ma­nent res­i­dents. He then rec­om­mend­ed using that infor­ma­tion to secret­ly dis­cred­it them, whom he labeled as “rad­i­cal­iz­ers.” But because this was revealed by The Huff­in­g­ton Post, an online pub­li­ca­tion viewed as pro­gres­sive, and was nev­er report­ed by main­stream papers such as the New York Times or the Wash­ing­ton Post, the rev­e­la­tion nev­er received the atten­tion it deserved.

Anoth­er major rev­e­la­tion, a top-secret NSA map show­ing that the agency had plant­ed mal­ware — com­put­er virus­es — in more than 50,000 loca­tions around the world, includ­ing many friend­ly coun­tries such as Brazil, was report­ed in a rel­a­tive­ly small Dutch news­pa­per, NRC Han­dels­blad, and like­ly nev­er seen by much of the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

​ A parabolic reflector with a diameter of 18.3 metres (60 ft.) at the National Security Agency’s former monitoring base in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

​ A par­a­bol­ic reflec­tor with a diam­e­ter of 18.3 metres (60 ft.) at the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency’s for­mer mon­i­tor­ing base in Bad Aib­ling, south of Munich, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Thus, despite the vol­ume of rev­e­la­tions, much of the pub­lic remains large­ly unaware of the true extent of the NSA’s vast, high­ly aggres­sive and legal­ly ques­tion­able sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties. With only a slim major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans express­ing con­cern, the chances of tru­ly reform­ing the sys­tem become great­ly decreased.

While the meta­da­ta pro­gram has become wide­ly known because of the numer­ous court cas­es and lit­i­ga­tion sur­round­ing it, there are oth­er NSA sur­veil­lance pro­grams that may have far greater impact on Amer­i­cans, but have attract­ed far less pub­lic atten­tion.

In my inter­view with Snow­den, for exam­ple, he said one of his most shock­ing dis­cov­er­ies was the NSA’s pol­i­cy of secret­ly and rou­tine­ly pass­ing to Israel’s Unit 8200 — that country’s NSA — and pos­si­bly oth­er coun­tries not just meta­da­ta but the actu­al con­tents of emails involv­ing Amer­i­cans. This even includ­ed the names of U.S. cit­i­zens, some of whom were like­ly Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­cans com­mu­ni­cat­ing with rel­a­tives in Israel and Pales­tine.

An illus­tra­tion of the dan­gers posed by such an oper­a­tion comes from the sud­den res­ig­na­tion last year of 43 vet­er­ans of Unit 8200, many of whom are still serv­ing in the mil­i­tary reserves. The vet­er­ans accused the orga­ni­za­tion of using inter­cept­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion against inno­cent Pales­tini­ans for “polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion.” This includ­ed infor­ma­tion gath­ered from the emails about Pales­tini­ans’ sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions, infi­deli­ties, mon­ey prob­lems, fam­i­ly med­ical con­di­tions and oth­er pri­vate mat­ters to coerce peo­ple into becom­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors or to cre­ate divi­sions in their soci­ety.

Anoth­er issue few Amer­i­cans are aware of is the NSA’s secret email meta­da­ta col­lec­tion pro­gram that took place for a decade or so until it end­ed sev­er­al years ago. Every time an Amer­i­can sent or received an email, a record was secret­ly kept by the NSA, just as the agency con­tin­ues to do with the tele­phone meta­da­ta pro­gram. Though the email pro­gram end­ed, all that pri­vate infor­ma­tion is still stored at the NSA, with no end in sight.

With NSA fatigue set­ting in, and the Amer­i­can pub­lic unaware of many of the agency’s long list of abus­es, it is lit­tle won­der that only slight­ly more than half the pub­lic is con­cerned about los­ing their pri­va­cy. For that rea­son, I agree with Fred­er­ick A. O. Schwartz Jr., the for­mer chief coun­sel of the Church Com­mit­tee, which con­duct­ed a year­long probe into intel­li­gence abus­es in the mid-1970s, that we need a sim­i­lar­ly thor­ough, hard-hit­ting inves­ti­ga­tion today.

Now it is time for a new com­mit­tee to exam­ine our secret gov­ern­ment close­ly again,” he wrote in a recent Nation mag­a­zine arti­cle, “par­tic­u­lar­ly for its actions in the post-9/11 peri­od.”

Until the pub­lic ful­ly grasps and under­stands how far over the line the NSA has gone in the past — legal­ly, moral­ly and eth­i­cal­ly — there should be no renew­al or con­tin­u­a­tion of NSA’s tele­phone meta­da­ta pro­gram in the future.