Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

February 26, 2013

Government expands search into private lives

By Taylor Armerding

— President Obama's campaign promise to run "the most transparent administration in history," was worth about as much as his promise that if you weren't a "millionaire" making $250,000, your taxes wouldn't go up "by one dime."

This administration is one of the most secretive in history - even sane liberals acknowledge as much. But what ought to trouble us a lot more is that the president and his team are still very much interested in transparency - yours.

George Orwell was off by a few decades, but based on the march of technology and the willingness of the administration to use it, Big Brother is here. He's in your computer connections to the Internet, he's in thousands of surveillance cameras already in use and, increasingly, he will be overhead.

So far, he only makes selected appearances. But disgraced former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus got a visit. Perhaps you recall last fall, when the FBI accessed what Petraeus had thought was a private, anonymous, e-mail account and read intimate communications he had with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

Soon after that, the general resigned.

Perhaps you think that wouldn't apply to you, since you're not a high U.S. government intelligence official, vulnerable to blackmail, like Petraeus.

Perhaps you should think again.

William Binney, who worked for the National Security Agency for 32 years, resigned in protest in 2001 after President George W. Bush's administration launched a top-secret surveillance program of warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. That, Binney said many times, was directly counter to the charter of the NSA, which was to collect foreign intelligence. But it apparently is one of a number of Bush policies that Obama criticized but now thinks is a very good thing.

In recent interviews, Binney said the U.S. is collecting and storing every electronic activity of its citizens. He said spying on citizens has gotten worse under Obama than it was under Bush.

Indeed, the federal government is spending $2 billion to build a data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that reportedly will hold five zettabytes of data. A single zettabyte is equivalent to the information on about 250 billion DVDs.

That doesn't mean the feds are going to read your every e-mail, Facebook post, and tweet in real time. But, if they decide they want to, they can go back and look. It will all be in storage.

And don't think that because you've done nothing "wrong" you have nothing to fear. As Binney notes, individuals don't get to decide that - the government does.

"If their position on something is against what the administration has, then they could easily become a target," he said.

Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told me a couple of months ago that if government really is collecting purely domestic electronic communications, "that would violate the law. But they operate in secret. It's all classified. That's our biggest concern."

And she suspects most citizens are unaware of the profile government can develop with electronic eavesdropping.

"It includes how you live your life, where you go, who you associate with, your age, race, religion," she said.

And then there are drones - currently a hot topic in the media - they're on the cover of Time magazine, all over network TV, including one used in the rescue of a 5-year-old hostage in Alabama.

But the official estimate is that there will be 30,000 drone aircraft deployed domestically by both commercial and government entities by 2020.

They will range from as big as a commercial aircraft to as small as a hummingbird. And many will be deployed with cameras that can see and record video of objects small enough to fit in your hand from 20,000 feet.

All of that data will be stored as well.

As a friend of mine put it, "Instead of 'follow that car,' it's 'follow every car, and tell me where they've been for the past six months.'"

Sure, some cities are trying to ban or limit the use of drones. But do you think they'll be able to trump the federal government? Not when the Federal Aviation Administration controls the airspace.

It is also hard to miss how selective the use of such intrusive surveillance is. Celebrity journalist Bob Woodward has reported highly classified information for decades, across multiple administrations, without legal sanction.

The recent movie "Zero Dark Thirty" depended on leaks of classified information. But that, of course, made the Obama administration look good.

By contrast, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was recently sentenced to 30 months in prison because he spoke publicly about the agency's policies on waterboarding, while none of those who actually did it were sanctioned or punished.

By contrast, the administration is ramping up its investigation into who leaked to the New York Times information about the Stuxnet computer worm, used to attack Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010.

In short, there are "good" and "bad" whistleblowers, and the government decides which is which.

The Obama administration will never be an open book. But your life will be.

That ought to concern you a lot more than whether one of the Kardashians is getting divorced.

- Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net.