Jun 20, 2013

Our Surveillance State: What You Need To Know

By now you've probably been reading all the news about recently disclosed surveillance programs that spy on Americans without any meaningful oversight, programs that have been brought to light by Edward Snowden, a contractor working at the NSA, the ultra-secretive National Security Agency.

You may be thinking, "Oh well, that doesn't affect me. I'm not a terrorist, I'm not doing anything illegal."

The disclosures by Snowden have revealed a grossly out of control surveillance system that spies on all Americans, even you, without probable cause, restraint or oversight. Not only that, but companies you might have assumed are watching out for you as customers, companies like Verizon, AT&T, Facebook, Google and others, have been actively cooperating with the NSA and the FBI in violating your privacy without due process. These companies, the NSA and the FBI have lied to Americans about what it is they are doing.

So...what are they doing? Well, thanks to Edward Snowden, we know the following:

  • Snooping On Your Calls - The government has been collecting the phone records of Americans for years, without oversight, due process or explanation, from Verizon and AT&T customers. Every call you've made can be accessed by the government whenever it wants to. Who has access to this information, and how might it be used?
  • Website Snooping - The NSA has access to the servers of Facebook, Google and Apple, meaning that anytime you've used these on-line services, the government knows what you're doing. Further, the government has forbidden these services from telling you this and have fought lawsuits at every turn by using the powerful State Secrets privilege.
  • E-mail Snooping - Every e-mail you've read, every website you've visited, has been cataloged by the government
  • No Oversight - There is no meaningful court oversight of any of this activity, meaning your rights, as an innocent citizen, are not even remotely being protected. Previous assertions to Congress about these programs have turned out to be lies. Members of Congress, who are supposed to be our representatives, have known about these programs and done nothing; indeed, some politicians proclaiming outrage about these programs never bothered to show up at classified briefings about them to ask questions.
Snowden collected top secret NSA documents on a thumb drive while working at the NSA and shared them with the British newspaper The Guardian, out of a desire to restore a sense of accountability to the government, which has been accountable to almost no one. The NSA and the FBI have been forced into admitting these programs exist, and trying to explain their previously false statements which are contradicted by these documents.

What Is Being Collected

  • Telephone records, on an ongoing daily basis, of both Americans and residents of foreign countries, from companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. These records include the actual telephone numbers at each end of every call, the duration of each call, and call routing information, allowing the NSA to build a picture of who you contacted, at what time and for how long. (source: The Guardian
  • Email messages and website traffic, in which companies are actively participating (despite their denials) in a program called PRISM, giving information about YOU to the government, without your knowledge, consent or due process. These companies include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. The revelations have forced these companies into an uncomfortable position, having to carefully deny their violations of your privacy. (source: The Washington Post)

But wait...there's oversight, right...?

These revelations have forced the government in general, and the NSA in particular, into an uncomfortable position. Obviously, they would have preferred to keep this information secret.  The government has fiercely fought any attempt to even acknowledge the existence of these programs in court. Now that it's no longer secret, they have responded by saying that a secret court provides an important balance to protect Americans, but the disclosures have challenged their rationale for secrecy. See this story for information about this.

Further, the government (and Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple) have been caught flat-out lying to Congress and to Americans about these programs.

Professor Law Laura K. Donohue from Georgetown University Law Center  has an analysis as to why these programs violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution HERE.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has struggled to explain his previous statements to Congress which have been proven to be false. In March, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) had the following exchange with Clapper, before the memos were leaked:

Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
Clapper: "No, sir."
Wyden: "It does not."
Clapper: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."

After it became clear that Clapper had not been telling the truth, he issued the following response when confronted:  "So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying 'no,'" [emphasis mine]  (Source)

This court, called the FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) has been trumpeted by President Barrack Obama and NSA Boss General Keith Alexander as a check on government overreach, a comforting system of protecting Americans. Obama has stated the process is "transparent", a claim PolitiFact rated as "pants-on-fire" false (read their analysis of Obama's claim HERE).

This court provides no balance at all. The FISA court has approved every request put before it. What's more, its decisions are secret and cannot be publicly discussed, and because of the FISA Amendment Act, the NSA can retain even accidental collections of communications. (Source: The Guardian)

The Washington Post has a detailed look at this ultra-secretive court, and it's discomfort with all the attention HERE. It's definitely worth a read.

The NSA Continues To Mislead the Public - Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) have accused the NSA of continuing to mislead the public about the privacy protections they have in place, to prevent innocent Americans from being swept up in their dragnet. They accused the NSA of overstating the protections, when in fact just the opposite was true; there are very few protections in place. Read about their concerns HERE.

Security vs. Freedom

Sacrifices have to be made, the argument goes, to protect us from threats of terrorism. And this is true...up to a point.
  • We'd probably be safer if we were forced to let the police enter our homes whenever they wanted to, let them rifle through our belongings and computer files, without pesky court orders or probable cause. 
  • We'd probably be safer if we all let the government implant a tracking chip under our skin so they could keep track of everything we did, and everywhere we went, all the time.
  • We'd probably be safer if we had to stop at police checkpoints everywhere we went, and explain to the officers where we were going and who we were seeing
  • We'd probably be safer if everyone flying on an airplane, getting on a train or subway, or renting a truck had to undergo a full body cavity search, completely disrobe and be examined by the authorities.
  • We'd probably be safer if everyone were forced to dress the same, watch the same kinds of movies, read the same kinds of books, had the same religious belief, and spoke the same language
  • We'd probably be safer if our computer monitors, televisions, smart phones and other devices watched us back, and reported any suspicious behavior to the NSA for further scrutiny
We don't allow the above to happen (not willingly, anyway) because it's invasive and offensive to our notions of freedom. The authorities would much rather not be bothered with all this pesky concern for the United States Constitution or our freedoms.

NSA defenders have jumped forward to insist that these secret programs protect us from terrorists and we must have them to keep this country safe. What terrorist plots have been foiled? They won't say. The few examples they give fall apart under scrutiny.

So...How Does This Affect Me?? I'm Innocent.

In case you still don't understand how outrageous and offensive this is, the Washington Post has a great article about privacy myths; you can read it HERE

Below are some examples of how out-of-control surveillance can negatively affect you and your rights as an American citizen:

  • You decide to research breast or testicular cancer, or to call doctors to treat this condition. Now the government knows this as part of its profile about you. There's a chance your insurance company could find out, leading to dropped coverage or higher premiums.
  • You succumb to temptation and decide to visit porn sites. You might pay for a porn website subscription (I know it's not you, but someone is feeding the porn industry millions of dollars a year).  Now the government has a record of your sexual preferences, probably the most intimate information you have about yourself. If your employer finds out, you could lose your job, or the possibility of a promotion or business client, for viewing material that is legally protected
  • You want to become involved in environmental, political or social justice causes, and attend rallies, meetings and protests, as is your right as an American citizen. Maybe you're a photographer who's only taking pictures. The next thing you know, the FBI arrives on your doorstep asking questions about your activities. And while they can lie to you to obtain information, lying to them is a federal crime. Examples HERE, HERE and HERE.

I'm Just One Person, and I Have A Life. What Can I Do...???

Apathy is how the government acquires ever greater power, and how our rights slowly diminish, the way they are being taken from us now. People are busy. We all have lives we're trying to lead, jobs we're trying to keep (or find), bills we have to pay, responsibilities.

Plus, standing up to the authorities is scary.

If you get arrested, even if you're innocent, even if the charges are dropped, it can have a powerful effect on your life, your job security, and your social status. This is a powerful deterrent against standing up for your rights, and many police officers and government agents make maximum use of this fear. 

So what can you do? Support groups who fight for you.
  • The ACLU is the best known group that fights tirelessly, all the time, for the rights of citizens. Support them. Help them fight for you, to protect your rights. They are your advocate, whether your views are popular or not. Visit them HERE and please consider making a donation.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation fights for the rights of digital users, from defending people's free speech rights, to beating back anti-consumer legislation, to exposing the misdeeds of corporations, patent trolls and the government, the EFF fights for consumers. They depend on your help. Consider giving them a donation to help them keep fighting. Visit them HERE.
  • Fight For The Future is dedicated to helping internet users everywhere beat back attempts to limit our basic rights and freedoms, and empower people to demand technology (and policy) that serves their interests, not those of huge corporations, who rarely have our best interests at heart. Check them out HERE.

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