The U.S. government is spying on you

The former NSA official held his thumb and forefinger close together:
“We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.” 
—James Bamford, Wired 

James Bamford, reporting in Wired, tells us how far the National Security Agency (NSA) has progressed in its domestic spying and what it’s planning for us in the future. His article, “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” is an amazing read. The geek in me is fascinated by the technology, but, it left me with a sick feeling. I learned that the U.S. government is monitoring and storing my entire digital footprint—emails, phone calls, parking tickets, Google searches, travel records, library records, bank statements, online purchases and credit cards.

You may think that government surveillance activity is directed solely at suspected terrorists and criminals, but, you would be wrong. It is directed at all of us. The U.S. government is engaged in gathering massive amounts of personal and sensitive information about ordinary citizens, with little or no oversight by the courts, Congress or the public.

According to the ACLU, agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) use computer programs to link people and make predictions about their behavior. They build “communities of interest” by constructing maps of our associations and activities. This is how we can end up on bloated and inaccurate watch lists that can keep us from flying on commercial airlines, or renewing our passports. This data stays indefinitely in government databases.

The NSA and its history of warrantless surveillance

For years the NSA ignored the courts and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and secretly and illegally eavesdropped on U.S. citizens. In late 2005, The New York Times revealed the NSA was engaged in warrantless wiretapping. In January, 2007, the NSA temporarily discontinued the practice in response to groups and individuals filing lawsuits against telecommunications companies and the Bush administration claiming that they had illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails. Whistleblower’s provided evidence that AT&T was complicit in the NSA’s warrantless surveillance, which involved the private communications of millions of Americans. You may recall the discovery, in 2006, of the famous “room” at AT&T where the NSA tapped into those calls.

After the NSA program was exposed, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), which made the practice of domestic spying legal. It was sold to the public as an important tool in “the war against terrorism.” The FAA granted telecoms immunity from prosecution and lawsuits.

What Bamford’s article reveals is the enormous growth of domestic spying since 2008. He reports that the NSA has established official “listening posts” throughout the nation—anywhere from 10 to 20 large, windowless buildings knows as switches—to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls. The listening posts allow government access to international communications and most of the domestic traffic flowing through the US.

The Utah Data Center

The main focus of Bamford’s article, however, is the Utah Data Center—a government facility under construction in a Bluffdale Utah. It’s being built to monitor and store . . . everything. The following passages are from his article. Emphasis is mine:

The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter . . . ”

But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to “cryptanalyze,” or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” . . .

 Section 215 of the Patriot Act

The NSA and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies use the infamous Section 215 of the Patriot Act to “authorize” their warrantless domestic spying activities on ordinary citizens. The ACLU has been trying to use FOIA requests to find out how the government is interpreting Section 215, but have not been successful in their efforts.

The government has just officially confirmed what we’ve long suspected: there are secret Justice Department opinions about the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which allows the government to get secret orders from a special surveillance court (the FISA Court) requiring Internet service providers and other companies to turn over “any tangible things.” Just exactly what the government thinks that phrase means remains to be seen, but there are indications that their take on it is very broad.

What is most problematic is that the government has secret Justice Department opinions about our laws that are not available for public scrutiny. In a democracy we should know how the Justice Department and the current administration is interpreting the laws our representatives pass.

So, let’s recap

The NSA, under the past and current administrations, has a history of intrusive behavior that has gotten worse in the past decade. In just over one year, virtually anything you communicate through any traceable medium, and any digital record of your activities—which these days is everything—will unofficially be property of the US government to use as it sees fit.

You may argue that the NSA is just trying to do its job. Now imagine a president Romney, or a president Santorum having control of your information. Think back to Watergate and the desire of a sitting president to use information against his political enemies. Consider the McCarthy era and the persecution of anyone who had progressive, socialist or communist leanings. Or, better yet, ponder the consolidation of power and money in the last decades, and the corruption of our political system. Think of a handful of billionaires, who have funded the election of a friendly government, gaining access to NSA data for their own purposes. And then consider what is going on right now—the coordinated government attacks on the Occupy movement.

In May of last year, The New York Times reported that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall are questioning the administration’s interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

“I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry,” Mr. Wyden said. . .

Another member of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, backed Mr. Wyden’s account, saying, “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out.”

The NSA is supposed to be using intelligence data to keep the citizens of the United States safe. However, its invasive use of advanced surveillance technology to spy on ordinary citizens is eroding our privacy and right to free speech and assembly.  Add to that, when any government, or part of government, operates behind a curtain of secrecy with ineffective oversight, it is an invitation to corruption and abuse of power. The good news is that the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 sunsets in December of 2012.  It’s time to have a national debate on privacy and government surveillance before Big Brother becomes permanent.