It’s been simultaneously fascinating, depressing, and more than just a little bit horrifying to watch the stories about the NSA spying on American citizens unfold over the last few weeks, and the situation deserves more of a response than just a few tweets.

Most important, I think, is to consider why this stuff matters in the first place. After all, Obama says “nobody has listened to the content of people’s phone calls” and Senator Feinstein says “this is just metadata,” so what’s the big deal?

Let’s start with what we know so far: The Guardian reported that the NSA is collecting, on a daily basis, all of Verizon’s phone records; various government officials have effectively confirmed this as fact. There have been other allegations as well, about the screening and storage of massive amounts of data from many major websites as well as credit card transactions, but it is less clear to what extent that data gathering was targeted, as opposed to the unfiltered collection of phone data.

Regarding the Verizon daily record dumps, Senator Feinstein is right: it’s just metadata. But that metadata includes both the caller and recipient’s phone number (easily associated with names in most cases), location information, call time and duration. There is some indication this has been going on for years, and no indication that the data will be purged or discarded, ever. There is no good reason to imagine other carriers don’t give the NSA the same data. To translate: if you have a phone, the government has a list of where you were, who you talked to, and for how long you spoke, every single time you were on the phone for at least the last three months, and probably the last few years.

I think that’s worth saying again: the government has tracked and recorded the location and communications of almost every single person in the United States (and many abroad) for months, if not years. The government has tracked and spied on you. This is not hypothetical, and it’s not conspiracy theory. This is a huge deal.

Consider what is effectively embedded in that list of dates, times, locations and phone numbers. Who your friends are. Where and when you’ve traveled. Whether you’ve ever had an affair, called a phone sex line or a suicide hotline, or had an abortion. Whether you’re straight or gay or bisexual. Whether you’re Democrat or Republican or Independent. Whether you’ve donated money to a political or social organization. None of those things are illegal, but in the right (or wrong) context, all could be used against a person, either by the government itself, or by someone with access to the data (which could happen in any number of ways). It was not so long ago that the US Government did just that, disrupting tens of thousands of lives, imprisoning hundreds of people, and costing the country untold millions of dollars. And that was before the Internet.

For those who say “there is oversight,” consider that the FISA court approved every single application to eavesdrop (that is, to actually listen in to the content of a conversation) that they received in 2012, all 1,789 of them. Since 2000, that court has approved over 20,000 requests and rejected only 11. National Security Letters — demands to companies and organizations for records and data (like the Verizon metadata) — don’t require any judicial approval at all and include a gag order prohibiting the recipients from discussing or disclosing any information about the demand, or even acknowledging its existence. (Since 2004 there have been almost 150,000 National Security Letters issued.) The FISA court meets in secret, and the court records are sealed. Lawmakers who are briefed on these matters are not permitted to discuss them publicly. This is hardly oversight.

To be clear: I am not a lawyer. I have no idea whether these spying programs will be judged legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional. I do know that historically, when it comes to these sorts of things, it does not go well for the whistle blowers, and government officials are rarely held meaningfully accountable for any transgressions. But discourse and transparency are foundational tenets of democracy, and if there is hope for the situation improving, it surely won’t come through warrantless searches, secret courts and unaccountable public officials. It will come through the courage of whistle blowers, public outrage, honest reporting in the media, expensive and lengthy lawsuits, and probably some new public officials.

I don’t want to be an activist. I don’t want to worry about the government spying on me (or other people who shouldn’t be spied upon), and I don’t want to imagine what they or someone else might do with the information collected. I also don’t want anyone to have to break the law to tell the world about that spying. I don’t want to waste my time or money on this as a “cause.” I want to spend time with my friends and family, to make stuff, to eat delicious food, to go to work — to live my life. But now I have to do something about this, and you do, too.

So what am I going to do? What can you do?

  • Write your representatives. Ask them for their position, tell them your opinion, suggest a course of action. Be specific, and include your name and address so they know you’re a constituent and can write you back.
  • Donate money to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or another organization fighting against these programs. Yes, it’s unfortunate that it takes donations to preserve civil liberties, but that’s the system as it exists right now, and these organizations can actually be very effective.
  • Talk to your friends. If they’re not at least a little put out by this, tell them why the should be.
  • Try to obtain information from the NSA and other agencies, via a Privacy Act request. It is our legal right to ask, but I have no idea what we’ll get back. I’m certainly curious to find out, though, and I’ll be sending one in for myself shortly.
  • Consider this.

This won’t be fixed overnight, but it can be fixed eventually if we want it to be.

posted June 10, 2013 – 1:12 am
Old News
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