Creeping totalitarianism: The NSA, personal data and you

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

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  • The question is

    why shouldn't the NSA have the same access to information Google has? The gathering of information is vital to National Defense. It must be controlled with checks and balances to prevent abuse.
    • Message has been deleted.

      Tim Patterson
      • Tim

        If what your hiding wont hurt you, what you dont know wont hurt you. And I dont think it matters much what is legal or what we appove of,,Someone will bend it sometime somewhere...
        • Actually, what you don't know can hurt you

          By allowing someone to 'hold something over' your elected officials and get them to, little by little, take away your rights like they are doing today.
    • Why does Google's access justify it?

      Even though Google doesn't have this information, for the
      most part, unless someone uses only Google apps for all
      communication, your point begs the question whether any
      organization should have all this data about us. Google's
      access to that data doesn't justify the NSA's access to the
      same data.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Exactly!

        This is one slippery slope that our Founding Fathers never could have anticipated.

        But why wait until now to post such an article. It's kinda like shutting the barn door after the livestock has already excaped. ;)

        This article and a plethora af others like it should have been popping up like mushrooms all over the net [b]LONG[/b] ago! B-)
        • Yeah, I wrote some of them

          I have been writing about the NSA for ZD (in one form or
          another) since 1991.... That doesn't mean we shouldn't be
          reminded the threat to liberty continues to grow each time
          we ignore greater surveillance.
          Mitch Ratcliffe
          • Kudos to you

            for it, too. You're one of only a few that have the castinettes! B-)
        • ...

          Uh, they were and the authors are called "Conspiracy Theorist", "Quacks" and "Loons". All because they didn't have a major label backing them. ]:)

          It's amazing how blind people are, even with their eye wide open staring at the problem.
          Linux User 147560
          • True enough. n/t

      • Your not complaining about ....

        .... Google having access to private information but complaining about the NSA speeks volumes however.
    • A very dumb question.

      Because the NSA is part of the government that you cannot opt out of. I could choose Yahoo or Live Search to spy on me or block all their cookies and keep them mostly in the dark. You cannot do this with the government unless you use Navajo smoke signals. So the reason is mainly they must not allowed to do it because you have no choice. Fear governments for companies you can walk away from.
    • Uh. Google doesn't have access to everyone's

      phone calls and e-mail. What?
      • Are you sure?

        Do you know for a fact that they don't?
    • why shouldn't the NSA have the same access to information Google has?

      The most important reason that comes to my mind, is that the NSA hopes to use that info to prosecute people, whereas Google is using it for marketing purposes---a huge difference.

      It's all about the "INTENT".
      • The problem with your statement...

        ... is that intentions are not static. Whatever their intentions today, they may be very different tomorrow. I think it is very dangerous to have any entity - Company, Government, or individual - to have that much capability to monitor me. No matter how benign today, tomorrow could be different.
    • A simple answer:

      The simplest answer, of course, is that I can, at my whim, revoke Google's access to any of my future data. If Google abuses my trust, I will no longer do any future business with them and many others will follow close behind me (for fear Google would do the same to them) and Google would more than likely be ruined. The same can not be said of our government. If it abuses this information, I have little to no recourse should the government not acknowledge the fact they did anything abusive.

      The checks and balances that once limited the NSA are being destroyed piece by piece in the name of safety.
      • If google only got ....

        ... the information from using there application that would be true. The only way you can avoid appearing in a google database is to not use the Internet, don't have a phone, etc, etc.
  • The United against a common enemy States of America

    At least, living in a democracy, you can change "drunken puppets" every few years (to appear unstable enough that they *might* press the button).

    The problem with over-monitoring is the "one thing leads to another" scenario, whereby you, the innocent person, can be made to appear guilty from the selection of appropriate "positives" from all of the information - a bit like how The Bible Code can be made true with enough computation.

    Also, how do you refute such covertly gained "evidence?"
    • You don't.

      [i]How do you refute such covertly gained "evidence?"[i]

      You don't. You can't. Because not only is the "evidence" itself covert, the means by which it was obtained and the process (if any) by which it was judged actionable (by whom?) is also covert.

      It's the old "joke", "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you" writ large upon what was once a nation of laws.

      If "national security" is whatever some unaccountable person (or unaccountable organization made up of such unaccountable persons) is, then our nation can never be secure. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The "nation" (i.e., those who control the political and economic mechanisms of the State) may think themselves "secure", but without transparency and accountability, the "security" mechanisms will eventually "overreach".

      Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was the "Free World" standing against the "totalitarian Evil", and the "Free World", "led" by what was once the United States of America, spoke long and loudly against such monitoring and control of citizen subjects by their "evel empire" government, while implementing large chunks of it themselves. For the past several years, the de facto definition of the "Free World" has changed - if totalitarianism is the antithesis of freedom, then the ex-Constitutional republic of the "United States of America" need no longer apply.

      We want our country back.
      Jeff Dickey