Upon taking office, President Obama issued a memorandum on the subject of transparency: “My Administration,” he said, “is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” Apparently, though, in spite of this stated goal, the Obama administration has been doing quite the opposite. Instead of sharing information openly with the American people, they’ve been collecting information, in secret, about the American people, building the largest domestic spying infrastructure known to man. While this has been suspected for some time, it became irrefutable fact yesterday when the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald made public a top-secret court order requiring Verizon, on an “ongoing, daily basis,” to hand over to the FBI and National Security Agency all metadata for calls made through their network, by millions of their US customers. The following clip is from Greenwald’s incendiary report:
…The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.
Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered…
In spite of the administration’s insistence that they’re just capturing and monitoring metadata, and not listening to the content of the calls themselves, numerous people have come out today saying not just that they’ve crossed the line by collecting this private information, but that they may already have the capability to electronically monitor and catalog our conversations. Retired National Security Agency intelligence analyst turned whistleblower Russell Tice this morning said, “What is going on is much larger and more systemic than anything anyone has ever suspected or imagined…. I figured it would probably be about 2015 (before the NSA had) the computer capacity to collect all digital communications word for word. But I think I’m wrong. I think they have it right now.”
Al Gore called the operation, which, it would seem, was made possible by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as amended in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by the Patriot Act of 2001, “obscenely outrageous.” And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a long time defender of privacy rights, had the following to say:
“As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure. Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true… The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about. Congress must address this issue and protect the constitutional rights of the American people.”
Happily, though, the stock price of Verizon was not affected, as no one, it would seem, cares about such things… We’ll see how that changes over the coming days, however, as we hear about more and more companies working with the NSA to spy on American citizens, despite the presumption of innocence that we’re all supposed to be living under.
And it’s probably worth noting that this apparently isn’t anything new. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the press today that the Verizon court order had been in existence for seven years, and that this court order, which was released by the Guardian, was just the most recent renewal. “People want the homeland kept safe,” she said.
While this apparently started before Obama, one would have thought that by electing a professor of constitutional law that we would have been able to avoid much of this anti-democratic nonsense set in motion after the 9/11 attacks. But, if we’ve learned nothing else over the course of the past decade, it’s that when tools are created, they will be used… as we were discussing not too long ago in the post about the militarization of American police forces… and as we’ve seen in the so-called War on Drugs, where tools developed for the purposes of fighting international terrorists are be utilized against small-time drug dealers.
And this, my friends, is what happens when you sacrifice liberty for the illusion of safety. You get neither. Instead, you create infrastructure that needs to be put to use. And that’s where we find ourselves today, living in a world of constant surveillance, hoping that we don’t one day dial a wrong number, connecting us to a pot dealer, or, worse yet, someone who might have, twenty years ago, vacationed at the same resort as Bradley Manning.
So, would it be incredibly unpatriotic of me to suggest that we all take to our smart phones right now and text, call, tweet and email out the word “bomb” until the whole thing implodes?
update: When I said that this would likely snowball, I had no idea how soon it would happen. According to a story just put out by the Washington Post, there are now nine more companies involved. Here’s a clip.
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.
Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing data collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.
So, while they may not be listening to every call (if you believe them), they are reading every email… And, guess what? In spite of that fact, the Boston Marathon was still bombed.
update: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has put together a very helpful timeline showing how we got to where we are today. (If you’re up for it, please consider giving a donation to EFF. They’re one of the few groups working on this, and we need to give them all the support we can.)
[This post is dedicated to Russ Feingold – the only member of the US Senate to vote against the Patriot Act – and the cowardly men and women of Wisconsin, who voted him out of office as a result.]