Read any good spy stories lately? It’s all I’ve been doing for the past five days. Thanks to a 29-year-old disgruntled security geek named Edward James Snowden, we all know quite a bit more about what our nation’s spies are probably doing than we did just a few days ago.
While the details are still sketchy and the stories often contradictory, just about all of the paranoid conspiracy theories you’ve heard about the NSA and the 15 different spy organizations underneath its umbrella appear to be true. There’s enough material here for half a dozen LeCarre novels or at least one more Jason Bourne movie.
According to Snowden, any NSA agent with sufficient clearance can call up the phone, Internet, financial, and other activities of any American, anywhere in the world, going back for years. In a video interview with The Guardian, Snowden made the following claim:
I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone – from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email….
Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded.…. It’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody – even by a wrong call – and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
Even if Snowden is exaggerating or lying – and I don’t think he is – those sentences should make you reconsider your use of electricity in all forms.
Let me simplify the issues. There are really only two things you need to worry about. One is accidental mistakes; the other is intentional mistakes.
The Accidental Terrorist
As we know from Snowden’s first leak, for at least the past seven years the NSA has been hoovering up metadata from our phone records – who we called, when we called, and where we were when we made the calls. In other words, if you are a heavy cell phone user, the NSA could make a pretty thorough map of your movements over time, if it chose to.
In its official defense, the NSA insists it’s only spying on foreign nationals. The problem with that argument: How do they know you’re a foreign national based on your phone calling records? The only way this could work is if, as Snowden says, the agency collects all the data about all users – including phone records, financial transactions, Facebook posts, etc -- analyzes it, then ignores whatever doesn’t fit its definition of “terrorist.”
And if you happen to fit the definition of terrorist, even though you aren’t one? Consider the case of Khalid el-Masri. In December 2003 the unemployed car salesman, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, was crossing the border between Serbia and Macedonia on a bus. He was hauled off the bus by Macedonian police and handed over to the CIA. From there, he was tortured for months on end in a secret American run prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit.
Khalid el-Masri’s crime: His name was phonetically similar to Khalid al-Masri, who was suspected of aiding the 9/11 bombers. Also, the CIA agent overseeing his capture “had a hunch” he was dirty. When the spooks finally realized they’d made a mistake they drove el-Masri out to a deserted road in Albania and let him out to find his own way home.
In December 2012, ten years after el-Masri’s abduction, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously condemned the CIA’s treatment of him as inhumane and illegal.
Tree huggers and vegetarians beware
In el-Masri’s case, the CIA made an “honest” mistake. Agents sincerely believed he was linked to al Qaeda. The odds of that happening to any of us are slight, though the consequences could be terrible.
Still, that’s not the scary part, and it’s not why Snowden leaked those documents. The reason Snowden came forward is that he realized the enormous potential for abuse such surveillance enables.
Beyond the case of el-Masri and a handful of others, we know very little about what the CIA and various other arms of the NSA did to innocent people.
But we know a bit more about what happened with the FBI after 9/11 and the passage of Patriot Act. We know, for example, that the Patriot Act has been used almost exclusively for crimes totally unrelated to terrorism. We know that the FBI has abused the use of National Security Letters to collect information about American citizens without having to show probable cause before a judge. We know that some of the groups investigated for alleged terrorist activities from 2001 to 2005 included Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and The Catholic Worker.
And we only know this because the FBI is subject to far more regulatory and judicial oversight than the NSA and any of its other shadow organizations.
The problem is that powers granted for one purpose (fighting terrorists) are inevitably employed for another purpose (fighting crime, identifying political dissidents, making life uncomfortable for government critics).
When the decision about whom to spy on is made in secret by some wonk with a hunch, who will never be held accountable for his actions, then our personal liberties have been eviscerated. When tree-huggers and vegetarians can be considered fair game for our nation's surveillance industrial complex, then none of us are safe.
Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blogeSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.