• How to Respond to Your Friends Who Think the NSA Surveillance is No Big Deal

    June 10, 2013 // 35 Comments »




    This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

    NSA surveillance is legal.

    True, as was slavery in the U.S., the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa and so forth. Laws mean very little when they are manipulated for evil.



    I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care? If you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide!

    See above. The definition of “wrong” can change very quickly.


    I trust Obama on this.

    All of your personal data is in the hands of the same people that run the TSA, the IRS and likely the DMV. Do you trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? Do you believe none of them would ever sell your data for personal profit ever? In fact, the NSA is already sharing your data with, at minimum, British intelligence. That’s a foreign government that your American government is informing on you to, FYI. Also, the alleged leaker, Edward Snowden, worked for a private contracting company and had access to your data.



    I really trust Obama on this.

    OK, let’s stipulate that Obama will never do anything bad with the data. But once collected, your personal data exists forever, and is available to whomever in the future can access it, using whatever technologies come to exist. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish.


    Well, there are checks and balances in the system to protect us.

    See above. Also, the king of all checks and balances in this case, the Fourth Amendment, has been treated by the government like a used Kleenex. As for the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA), set up to review government requests for wiretapping, it approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012. The FBI made 15,229 National Security Letter requests in 2012 on Americans. None of those even require FISA rubber-stamping. And here’s DOJ trying to keep classified a court ruling that says it might have acted unconstitutionally.

    More importantly, if all the NSA’s activities are legal, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public, in front of the Supreme Court. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong there is nothing to hide. Unfortunately, when Amnesty International tried to bring such a case before the Court, the case was denied because Amnesty could not prove it was subject to monitoring– that was a secret!– and thus was denied standing to even bring the suit.

    Many people believe the surveillance violates both the Fourth Amendment protections against search, and the First Amendment protections on the right to peaceably assemble, online in this instance.



    There are 300 million Americans, producing a gazillion emails and Skype chats and Instagrams every day. Nobody cares about my boring stuff.

    Mining all that data is just a matter of how many computers are devoted to the task today, and using better technology in the future will make it even easier.

    But the TV says they collect only “Metadata” so I’m safe.

    Metadata is the index to all the content NSA is already sweeping up. NSA is able to record say 24 hours worth of Verizon phone calls easy enough. With the Metadata, they can then easily locate any particular call within that huge chunk of otherwise streaming data. Metadata can also provide geolocation information to track your physical movements, among other things. It is very important.



    Distasteful as this all is, it is necessary to keep us safe. It’s for our own good.

    The United States, upholding to our beautiful Bill of Rights, has survived (albeit on a sometimes bumpy road) two world wars, the Cold War and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of our civil rights. Keep in mind that the Founders created the Bill of Rights, point-by-point, specifically to address the abuses of power (look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment) they experienced under an oppressive British government. A bunch of angry jihadis, real and imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system. Prior to 9/11 we did not have a mass-scale terror act (by foreigners; American Citizen Timothy McVeigh pulled one off.) Since 9/11 we have not had a mass-scale terror attack. We can say 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, and cannot be a justification for everything the government wishes to do. There is also the question of why, if the NSA is vacuuming up everything, and even sharing that collection abroad, this all needs to be kept secret from the American people. If it is for our own good, the government should be proud to tell us what they are doing for us, instead of being embarrassed when it leaks. If you’re not doing anything wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide, right?


    Terrorist are everywhere.

    Doubtful. No suicide bombers in shopping malls, no hijackings. How many Americans have died in the past twelve years due to terrorism in the U.S.? At the same time, despite all this intrusion into our lives and violations of the Fourth Amendment, the system completely missed the Boston bombers, two of the dumbest, least sophisticated bro’ terrorists in the world. Those two practiced no tradecraft at all. Maybe all this surveillance isn’t really about stopping terrorists and is more about generic spying on us all, using a fake argument of 100% security at the cost of 0% privacy? At the same time, we do have a problem with gun nuts committing mass shootings that have mowed down Americans in numbers far beyond terrorism since 9/11, but no one seems concerned about using tech to stop that. So much has been justified (torture, spying) by the so-called ticking time bomb scenario but there has never been shown an actual ticking time bomb scenario in real life.


    Protecting America comes first.

    But protecting what from what is the question. If instead of spending trillions and trillions of dollars on spying and domestic surveillance we spent that same money on repairing our infrastructure and improving our schools, wouldn’t that more directly create a stronger America?


    I just don’t care.

    Fine, enjoy your television. Just don’t be surprised when you’re woken from your deep sleep one night by a knock on the door.

    BONUS: If you’re Edward Snowden, the alleged leaker, and you have some interest in not spending the rest of your life in a U.S. supermax prison, why oh why are you in Hong Kong? Hong Kong has an active extradition agreement with the U.S. Why are you not in Ecuador, Beijing, or maybe Iceland?

    Snowden has the guts to do what the government does not have the guts to do: bring the NSA’s activities into daylight, for all to see. As a whistleblower myself, and meeting many others from Ellsberg to Drake, I know it takes enormous courage to do what Snowden did, and the willingness to give up everything– life, freedom, everything– for a good bigger than yourself. If that is not a definition of patriotism nothing else can be.

    BONUS BONUS: My interview with Agency France Press on Snowden and whistleblowing.




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