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Opinion: Who cares about surveillance?

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It has been over four months since Edward Snowden’s first disclosures regarding the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, but despite the serious intrusiveness of these programs, public outrage has been muted.

While initial reports concerning mass collection of phone metadata was certainly troubling, it was easy for many to dismiss as a fair tradeoff for security against foreign “terrorists.” Many doubted Snowden’s claim that the NSA was operating an Orwellian system of surveillance against US citizens, or they dismissed such claims as hyperbole. Subsequent disclosures have not only verified Snowden’s claim, but have painted a disturbing picture of a spying apparatus that operates worldwide, with no transparency and little to no oversight. Such a system ought to be opposed prima facie as an implementation of a Panopticonic apparatus of power. But if this argument doesn’t hold weight with the general public, revelations about the details and application of surveillance programs should seem troubling to any person.

First, it is a canard that surveillance operations apply only to foreigners. The procedure of these programs shows that this cannot be the case. The recent declassification of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court  documents verifies that the secret court granted NSA authorization to “…require ongoing daily production… of certain call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ in bulk.” And that the “…Court’s orders generally require production of the business records [call detail records] relating to substantially all of the telephone calls handled by the companies, including … calls made entirely within the United States.” Internet surveillance operates under a similar framework, where data is collected either via backdoors in major companies (the so-called PRISM program) or through surveillance “upstream” at backbone servers through which all internet traffic (domestic and foreign) passes through. This has been corroborated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “Upstream collection…occurs when NSA obtains internet communications, such as e-mails, from certain US companies that operate the Internet [backbone], i.e., the companies that own and operate the domestic telecommunications lines over which internet traffic flows.”

Second, it is naïve to believe that this surveillance is limited in scope. Ignoring that the NSA has been frequently upbraided for failing to follow its own rules and that the Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress about the extent of NSA programs, the idea that these programs apply only to “terrorists” cannot even hold water. Besides the fact that every person, “terrorist” or non-terrorist, is under surveillance, we have to keep in mind that those who come under scrutiny by the NSA are not terrorists but only accused terrorists. None of these people have been formally charged with a crime. This is even more troubling when we consider that the FISC documents have elaborated on the lowered burden for using this data. The document explains, “… the government need not provide specific and articulable facts, demonstrate any connection to a particular suspect, nor show materiality when requesting business records under Section 215 [of the PATRIOT Act].” Collaboration between the NSA and criminal investigation agencies show that this risk is not merely in theory. Recent leaks about a DEA unit called the Special Operations Division reveal that law enforcement has been using NSA data to launch investigations and then “working backwards” to make it appear that the intelligence was acquired through other means.

Even if your communications never come under close scrutiny, you should ask yourself what meaning freedom of thought has when every communication made is surveilled. Ask yourself what kind of society we are becoming when apparatuses of power exist that allow mass spying to be the norm. Ask yourself if this is the kind of society you want to live in.

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