The potential to abuse the information obtained by the NSA is nearly infinite
When George Orwell wrote 1984 he envisioned a world where language had become co-opted by the system. The state became ever-present, and more importantly, self-censoring. The everyday reality and behavior of citizens in this dystopic future is constantly observed in minute detail and scrutinized accordingly. Language is the essential element as the entirety of our communications, even computer code, are language. As Orwell writes in 1984, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
The reality in which we now find ourselves is not too far off. Although I’m not necessarily suggesting that we live in a physical police state, the ways in which the average American goes about living life are intimately intertwined with the data which the NSA collects and then has the capability to feed other organizations and individuals within the government. Officials claim that this is used for the benefit of the safety of American citizens and occurs mainly outside the borders of the United States. The electric octopus is growing everyday, whether you like it or not.
With the internet continuing to become an integral part of life around the world, it is very necessary to look at the possible opportunities for the abuse of power that exist within the system as it stands now. These opportunities do not exist only within the capabilities of the NSA, but extend throughout the system. One can only hope that a government-internet union (which appears to be in our not-too-distant future) will not feed into the corporatist machine.
On May 15 the FCC voted 3-2 to ratify the proposed set of rules aimed at evening the data playing field. The three Democrats sitting on the panel voted for the measure while the two republicans voted against. The reason for the dissenting opinion? A belief that the measures were in violation of the rights of US citizens.
The problem with this measure resides in the fact that the ability of internet providers to restrict the bandwidth of certain users still remains, it has simply been restructured. Now, high-paying clients are able to purchase faster internet speeds, and thus better exposure on the net. This will inevitably feed only further into the state-media-military complex.
The former head of both the NSA (1995-2005) and the CIA (2006-2009) Gen. Michael Hayden insists that, contrary to the belief that meta-data is unimportant, the US “kill[s] people based on meta-data.” The NSA obtains this data from the phone companies among many other sources that individuals would not necessarily expect and Hayden has stressed that this data is only accessible when absolutely necessary. The situation on the part of the state to pull the trigger, says Hayden, is definitely governed by the difference between what is foreign and what is domestic intelligence. The reality may not be so simple.
The system the NSA has created essentially builds a continuous “lump” of information. This lump can be cross-referenced with names and other variables when necessary to provide the searcher with tangible patterns of behavior with which to do surveillance.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA (2005-March 2014) (Stepped down amid the Snowden revelations and allegations of NSA spying) and head of US Cyber Command (2010-) was asked about the supposed fifty-four terrorist plots that the Obama Administration claimed have been foiled with the help of NSA surveillance activities. He states of the intelligence-gathering process, “I’m going to give you a set of big, long words to put on there. Then I’m going to give you some tools to guess the words. You get to pick a vowel or a consonant—one letter. There’s a hundred letters up there. You’ll say, I don’t have a clue. O.K., so you’ve used your first tool in analysis. What the intelligence analysts are doing is using those tools to build the letters, to help understand what the plot is.”
This type of data-collection focuses on creating networks of information that make it infinitely easier for intelligence analysts extrapolate patterns. Alexander continues with respect to the 9/11 hijackers, “Around 9/11, we intercepted some of [the hijackers’] calls, but we couldn’t see where they came from. So guys like [Khalid al-] Mihdhar, [one of the 9/11 hijackers who was living] in California—we knew he was calling people connected to Al Qaeda in Yemen. But we thought he was in the Middle East.”
In retrospect, Alexander suggests that if the present measures had been in place, things may have gone differently. He states, “We had no way to connect the dots. If you rewound 9/11, what you would have done is tipped the F.B.I. that a guy who is planning a terrorist attack is in San Diego. You may have found the other three groups that were with him.” This indicates a clear willingness on the part of the NSA to use any and all means in all theatres, even the domestic. There’s an obvious, real-world reason for it, and this is what should be causing alarm in those who are still concerned with the right to privacy of Americans.
Many others contend that the collection of meta-data is an egregious violation of the privacy rights of American citizens. Indeed, gross abuses of power have been documented within the agency (this is entirely predictable).
Leaks to the Guardian by Edward Snowden revealed the scope of this spying operation. Phone customer meta-data has been and continues to be collected in the United States and across the world. The NSA is even able to use radio waves to hack into the computers and smartphones of individuals when the systems are turned off. The organization, however claims that this method is not used domestically (this is hard to believe seeing the agency’s willingness to suck up all the information that it can).
On April 14, Bloomberg reported that the NSA used the “Heartbleed” bug vulnerability that exists as a part of the way that many websites send critical information relating to transactions. The contention states that the NSA abused this bug for multiple years. The NSA refused to comment on the allegations initially and then later denied it had knowledge of the bug’s existence.
The activities of the NSA also act to embarrass the US and hurt its diplomatic relations with other countries. Evidence has surfaced that the NSA used its power to spy on the emails and personal phones of many diplomats and public officials in EU countries. When the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel requested to see the file kept on her by the NSA, she was denied access.
When asked about the perceived abuses, Sen. Diane Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Panel said this, “Any case of noncompliance is unacceptable, but these small numbers of cases do not change my view that NSA takes significant care to prevent any abuses and that there is a substantial oversight system in place.”
It seems as if there are really two NSAs. One which represents the vast majority of the bureaucratic institution. This part is fairly benign and simply consists of individuals interested in helping law enforcement keep Americans safe. The second part is the one that worries me. It consists in the small group of individuals that exist in every bureaucracy who will and have consistently used their power and position within the system to manipulate for personal and corporate gain.
Whether or not the NSA is a benign governmental institution does not matter in the slightest. The potential for the abuse of the information obtained is nearly infinite. Plenty of evidence that abuses have already occurred exist and if the trend persists un-swayed, American privacy will continue to disappear. As we enter an age where the government is naturally beginning to assert its authority over the domain of the internet, it is necessary to guard against the slide into Orwell’s vision, a world where, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”