Creeping totalitarianism: The NSA, personal data and you

Summary:Here's a simple rule for preventing totalitarian rule in any nation: Don't build the systems for monitoring people's daily lives closely in the first place, and you will not be at risk of totalitarian rulers using those systems to overwhelm individual choice. The Wall Street Journal today has a long piece on the various ways that the National Security Agency has expanded its ability to monitor individuals within the United States without a warrant.

Here's a simple rule for preventing totalitarian rule in any nation: Don't build the systems for monitoring people's daily lives closely in the first place, and you will not be at risk of totalitarian rulers using those systems to overwhelm individual choice. The Wall Street Journal today has a long piece on the various ways that the National Security Agency has expanded its ability to monitor individuals within the United States without a warrant. It's a must-read, whether you think we need this kind of police agency or not.

Originally set up by President Truman to facilitate signals intelligence (wiretapping, radio monitoring and so forth) conducted against foreign governments, the NSA today can gain access to your personal communications without any need to ask permission, including:

Email, such as the to- and from-addresses, subject line content and time sent;

Web sites visited and the content of your searches;

Wireless calling, from your location and that of the person receiving the call to the length and account numbers;

Wired phone calling, including account numbers and length of call (there have been rumors for years that the first minute of calls are monitored for keywords, but this is not confirmed, because, as a national security matter, citizens aren't supposed to know);

Financial transactions, such as your credit card use, wire transfers and deposits and withdrawals on your checking and savings accounts,

as well as the content of any transaction recorded by a computer that the NSA deems necessary for its pattern recognition analyses.

The NSA has always insisted it works scrupulously within the limits of the laws governing its behavior, but it has, like all human institutions, had lapses in its judgment. For example, during the year immediately after 9/11, NSA attempted to set up a Total Information Awareness network, which was meant to grab all data about people and their transactions and communication for analysis, but Congress prohibited any further spending on the program over civil liberties concerns. Nevertheless, the program has continued in pieces that, in total, add up to the same level of access to domestic civilian communications, as the Journal article makes clear.

Technologists must be aware of this ever-expanding net that can trap and hold their customers' and colleagues' data, because it is reshaping the potential for public discourse about what our country and government can and should do, as well as how we may act as individuals.

Sure, there will be commenters on this posting who write that "it's nothing to worry about if you don't do anything wrong." And that may be true, but the problem with these institutions is that they will not go away when the threat of terrorism passes. Maybe you think that threat will never end, but then we must ask whether this approach to fighting terrorism has any merit. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that terrorism can be handled within the scope of normal police activity, as it has been since before 9/11.

Human sources of information are known to be far more valuable than data-driven analysis of massive amounts of transactional data. Yes, after an agency has a human source those data analyses can be very useful in assembling a case, though it is perfectly reasonable and very easy to get a warrant from a judge for that information based on the human source—there is no need for unbridled warrantless monitoring of the people of the United States.

You see, if we assume that most of us are law-abiding citizens, the need for unrestricted monitoring is obliterated by the logic of focused pursuit of known and suspected bad guys based on established legal procedures. Warrants before monitoring is more efficient, faster and not just an ACLU talking point, but the very foundation of limited government.

If we allow our nation to be shot through with monitoring systems, we'll be monitored forever, because people and institutions that have been granted power seldom give it up, as we all know. They even fall prey to the temptation to abuse those powers. In Cincinnati back in the late 1980s, the power to use wiretaps overcame the good judgment of police officers who used them to listen to their spouses' conversations and to conduct surveillance on businesses. During the 1970s, the abuse of national surveillance powers was so rife that Congress established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and a system of courts for providing law enforcement legal access to communications with a warrant. Today, the FISA system is under attack by those who believe we need unrestricted surveillance of Americans, as well as of potential terrorists abroad.

The trajectory of the NSA's existence is the proof we face a serious threat to our ability to live and decide for ourselves. An agency originally chartered to monitor the communications of "foreign governments" is now monitoring individual American citizens. It is a classic case of over-reaching by government.

The NSA has worked around the decision of Congress to build its total awareness network. It is time the people made fighting that unrestricted access to their lives a campaign issue. If we don't stop the vast spending on domestic surveillance today, it will bankrupt our government, morally and financially. We'll be giving increasing power to bureaucrats to peak into our lives to ensure that we are living according to their whims, as every comprehensive system of public monitoring in history has produced in the past.

Topics: Government : US, Government

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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