In the 21st century surveillance state, we are all terrorists

Intimidating reporters, destroying their computers, detaining them under false pretenses -- it's all in a day's work for today's modern spy agency.

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Miranda Warning

As I’ve written before, there are only two things you need to worry about from wall-to-wall 24/7 surveillance: accidental mistakes and intentional ones.

Last year, the NSA made nearly 3,000 accidental mistakes in surveillance, ranging from mis-identifying Americans as foreigners to typos that allowed NSA analysts to confuse calls made from Washington DC with those made from Egypt.

To see the potential consequences of an accidental mistake, Google Brandon Mayfield or Khalid el-Masri. Due to an FBI screw-up with fingerprint matching, Mayfield almost spent the rest of his life in a maximum security prison. German citizen el-Masri was abducted by the CIA, sent off to a secret prison, tortured for five months, then dumped on the side of a road. His crime? Having a name that was a phonetic match to an actual terrorist.

For a more benign example, just ask anyone named “David Nelson” who attempted to board a flight after 9/11 and got stopped because his name was on the TSA’s Do Not Fly list.

But yanking David Miranda out of a queue at Heathrow, tossing him into an interrogation room, and sweating him for nine hours is an example of the other kind of mistake. Nobody in the UK secret service thought Miranda was really a terrorist – or, at least, how you and I would define “terrorist.” That, too, was sending a message.

It was a warning to Greenwald but also to journalists and whistleblowers in general: The gloves are coming off. Or as the kids like to say, s**t just got real.

Cooking the books

There are some sad ironies in all of this.

Ed Snowden got away with taking a trove of secret documents from the NSA because an organization whose mission is to watch everyone failed to watch him. The NSA failed IT Security 101: segregation of duties. A single individual should not have the ability to access sensitive data as well as the ability to control the audit trail.

If you own a bank, you don’t want the person you’ve hired to guard the money to be the same guy who’s keeping the books.

By the same token, though, the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ are also operating with almost no oversight, despite what Barack Obama or David Cameron might try to tell you. That’s because they’re the ones who get to say who is and isn’t a terrorist suspect, then scoop them up and lock them away.

In other words, a “terrorist” is anyone the spooks say is a terrorist. In the past, we might reasonably assume our intelligence agencies targeted people who presented a potential threat to us. With the Miranda detention, it’s clear that a “terrorist” is anyone who presents a threat to them.

Not to sound too paranoid, but: This is how totalitarianism starts.

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