In New York City, "freelance spies" are recording your conversations

The job of these lawless spies is unknown. Their motive, however, is to raise awareness.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
(Image: We Are Always Listening)

A group of unknown "freelance spies," as they call themselves, are recording conversations across Manhattan -- in bars, restaurants, gyms, and any other number of places where they might find juicy chatter between two or more unsuspecting subjects.

Little is known about the people strapping tape recorders underneath bar tables and behind gym equipment in New York City.

What is known is that they're operating above the law -- much like their "counterparts" at the National Security Agency. Glossing over the fact that eavesdropping in the state of New York requires the consent of at least one party -- in other words, it's illegal -- they're acting much like how the US government did when it collected millions of Americans' data in bulk, according to one court.

The group continues to post a handful of collected recordings on its website, with the hope of uncovering "signs of plots and schemes that could put the homeland at risk," one of the members' told Gothamist.

So far, nothing's turned up -- except complaints about rent control and the complicated nuances of one guy's sexual fetishes.

But their aim is both less and more nefarious than you'd think.

Their aim cracks open one of the problems in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Nobody outside a privacy-minded portion of society seems to care. Check one: "Citizens don't seem to mind this monitoring, so we're hiding recorders in public places in hopes of gathering information to help win the war on terror," says the group's website. The real reason -- as seen by a footer hat-tip to the ACLU -- is to raise awareness about the surveillance conducted by the NSA and its other federal agencies.

While it's an interesting project, it's equally terrifying. It highlights one of two things on the fly.

The first is that despite the end of bulk records collection, the authorities still have a wide range of ammunition in their surveillance arsenal. Yes, as of the time of writing, the NSA has no option but to cease its bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records. But there happens to be a clear way around that. The US government still has a few days if it wants to carry on with that collection.

Their second point and perhaps the more worrisome: Private companies are not subject to the Fourth Amendment. Companies have very few restrictions in what they can do with your data.

While you may find it annoying that your private conversations are being picked up by apparently everyone -- by a bunch of anonymous anti-freedom fighters to the NSA -- at some point you have to wonder where the government's getting all its data from. Because it sure as hell isn't you directly.

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