Feel like someone is looking over your shoulder? No need to worry, that is just the National Security Agency’s X-Keyscore program, monitoring your Internet activity for your protection.
In a recent interview, Javaria Khan, an international student from Pakistan, voiced the unsettling feeling of being listened to when she calls her family back home, “Talking about general things is fine but when I’m talking about a sensitive issue such as the Boston Bombing I am very conscious about what I am saying because what if I said something suspicious.” The monitoring of a call between the United States and Pakistan may seem like a reasonable use of national defense surveillance. But the NSA’s reach extends much farther, into the daily lives of nearly every American, and involves itself with issues unrelated to terrorism.
The leak of classified surveillance programs by Edward Snowden in collaboration with the news organization The Guardian has revealed that the NSA is keeping a close eye on all of us, and largely ignoring the few privacy protections placed on its activity. Sorelle Mbakop, a Junior at UMass Amherst, echoes the sentiment of many Americans, “if no one has anything to hide I don’t see a problem with it,” but there are drawbacks to mass surveillance even for those who have done nothing wrong.
Historically, surveillance programs throughout the world have been used against political dissidents to blackmail and suppress them. Li Tiantian, a human rights lawyer in China, knows firsthand how surveillance can be used in an attempt to limit political dissent. The Chinese government constantly blackmails her by showing her boyfriend images of her walking into hotels with other men, and they listen to her conversations to intercept her on the way to meetings. Every moment of her life is carefully watched and it causes significant problems in her everyday life, never mind her work for human rights.
Think that the United States would never engage in such corrupt behavior? During the Civil Rights Movement, the FBI spied on Martin Luther King and used his personal relationships and conversations as blackmail against him. They also used their surveillance to monitor various civil rights organizations and disrupt their funding and activities. That particular program was called COINTELPRO and it impacted activists right here at UMass.
Professor William Strickland is co-founder of a civil rights organization called the Institute of the Black World, which was established in Georgia during the Civil Rights Movement. In an interview, Strickland spoke of how the FBI disrupted his organization, “We were COINTELPRO’ed, they broke into our office, they interfered with our fundraising. To survive as a small organization, those of us with credentials, we left to teach in universities across the country.”
The NSA programs leaked by Snowden make past surveillance measures look like lonely cameras down dark alleys. Technological advancement has allowed us to do nearly everything on small electronic devices in our pockets, in doing so it has confined massive amounts of our personal information in one convenient place. The world is growing ever more interconnected, and the NSA (along with private companies) is taking advantage of this web of information to create highly detailed personalized profiles.
Some of the programs include metadata collection, which stores all of your phone and email conversations and organizes the metadata to construct a communication profile. Then there is PRISM, the NSA program that delves into your personal accounts on Facebook, Google, Yahoo. etc. to retrieve the information within your profiles. Next in line is X-Keyscore, which monitors and documents your Internet activity. The NSA does not anchor its surveillance to the Internet, it also records financial transactions and has tested location tracking.
While much about the NSA and its activities remains unknown, the amount of information that the agency is known to collect allows it to construct detailed profiles of each individual in its databases. A new $1.4 billion facility has recently been built in the deserts of Utah, specifically designed to store oceans of data and organize it into billions of profiles. These profiles contain phone calls, emails, Skype conversations, social media information, Internet browsing, financial activity, and more; they are quite revealing.
The NSA has been able to conduct such broad and invasive surveillance through the legal reinforcement of the Patriot Act, and specifically section 215. The Patriot Act was hastily pushed through Congress in response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The need for increased security against possible terrorist attacks, and the sacrifice of some personal freedoms, was widely supported by the American public in the wake of 9/11. Surveillance activities carried out under the Patriot Act were to be subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The government had enacted new legislation that allowed for greater security measures to prevent possible terrorist attacks, and had put in place oversight mechanisms so that Americans would not have their rights trampled upon. All seemed well. However, it was soon realized that the FISA Court’s oversight was minimal at best, and was often times ignored altogether. On top of the unconstitutional activity of the NSA it has also been shown that its surveillance has done little if anything to protect us from terrorism.
The American public has been reassured that warrants are needed for the NSA to search through their personal information. This is technically true, but the FISA Court has only rejected 10 warrants brought before it while accepting thousands of others, issuing secret opinions to justify its decisions. When the NSA cannot get approval from this secret court, which has no oversight and can approve a warrant with a single judge, the agency has ways to conduct searches without a warrant. The fact that NSA employees have been able to extensively spy on their spouses and love interests seems to indicate that it is relatively easy to target anyone.
“Are we willing to trade some of our privacy for better security?” questioned Civil Liberties Professor Sheldon Goldman in a recent interview. This has been the defining question weighed in considering the implementation of these mass surveillance measures. But another question that must be considered as well is does mass surveillance cause harm to our security?
If no action is taken against the NSA’s broad reach and intrusive practices, they will likely expand in the future and become more invasive as technology advances. The political response to recent revelations about NSA surveillance will set a precedent, whether we demand greater protection of privacy rights or endorse the programs as necessary security measures.