By Taylor Armerding
— You can tell me you’re just fine with the federal government collecting not only your telephone records — who you called, when, from where, and for how long — but also your e-mail, your social media postings and every transaction you conduct on the Internet.
Or, you can tell me you’re outraged at a Big Brother kind of surveillance of you and your fellow citizens’ personal lives.
But please don’t tell me you’re surprised.
It is not just that this kind of “data-mining” has been going on for at least a decade or more. It is that you have also been told it has been going on — by a number of people. If you weren’t paying attention, whose fault is that?
William Binney, who worked for the National Security Agency for 32 years, resigned in protest in 2001 after the Bush administration launched a top-secret surveillance program to spy on U.S. citizens without warrants. Binney said that violated the core mission of the agency, which was to collect only foreign intelligence.
He has been saying since then that the NSA is collecting the electronic activity of U.S. citizens — not just phone records. In an interview late last year he estimated the number of electronic documents now being stored at “probably close to 20 trillion.”
When he was asked if things had changed under President Obama, he said yes — “the change is that it has gotten worse.”
The information technology press has reported numerous times on the construction of the NSA’s new data center due to open this September in Bluffdale, Utah, south of Salt Lake City.
Wired magazine reported more than a year ago that the center will be capable of storing almost incomprehensible amounts of data. It will intercept, store, and analyze “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private e-mails, 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,’” the magazine said.
Members of Congress like Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have been dropping blatant hints about it for years as well, saying Americans would be “stunned” if they knew of the government surveillance of citizens being conducted. They even wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, arguing that “there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”
I generally enjoy saying “I told you so,” (what columnist wouldn’t?) but it gives me very little pleasure to say even I told you about it a few months ago, when I wrote that while President Obama daily breaks his promise that his would be “the most transparent administration in history,” he is very much about making the American citizenry the most transparent population in history.
So Edward Snowden, the most recent whistleblower, was only making it official when he leaked top-secret government documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post about telephone and Internet surveillance by your government.
And anybody who still remained unconvinced should have had their minds changed by the slippery semantic games played by everybody from the president on down.
Obama tried to smooth things over by telling us nobody is listening to our telephone calls. That was his usual effort to duck the issue by knocking down a straw man. Nobody — not even Snowden — said the government is listening in on people’s calls. It doesn’t need to. The point is that the government is tracking your calls, which could reveal what political groups you belong to, what your business plans might be, any kind of medical problems you might have, where you go at night, and more. In light of recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s interest in conservative political groups, the president’s weasel words, even delivered in soothing tones, are not reassuring.
The same is true of James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who “revised” his testimony before Congress about monitoring citizens’ e-mails (he said “no, sir” at the time) when he told the National Journal, “what I said was, ‘the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails.’ I stand by that.”
That might be news to former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned last fall after the FBI read through thousands of pages of e-mails from what he thought were anonymous, private accounts, exposing an affair with his biographer. As Binney noted, “What probable cause did they have? There was no crime.”
Again, the point is not that the government is reading all of our e-mails. It is that it is collecting them, and if it decides anyone is of special interest, for whatever reason, it can then read them.
Obama’s stance on all this is especially rich, since when he was a senator, he blasted President Bush for “illegal wiretapping of American citizens” and “ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.”
In his first inaugural address, Obama declared, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
It appears, if Pew Research Center polls are to be believed, that a majority of Americans agree with the president that this kind of surveillance is necessary to keep us safe. That they think Ben Franklin’s warning — that those who trade freedom for security will end up with neither — is outdated.
I hope they’re right. Because I think we’re about to find out.
— Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.