With 9 in 10 people caught in NSA nets illegally tagged innocents, how far will surveillance go?

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

July 11, 2014

Collect it all. That has been the mantra of James Clapper’s NSA, as we learned from Edward Snowden’s disclosures of June 2013. This program relies on non-discretionary data collection without regard to source. Thus many thousands of ordinary phone and internet users- not terrorists- have had their communications spied upon. Surveillance is random and total- not targeted.

The sorry saga of this personal snooping continues and is detailed in a recently concluded Washington Post investigation. It demonstrates that the very fabric of our daily lives is the goal of government snooping.

According to WP observations, the data collected by the NSA ’have startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality… The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are cataloged and recorded nevertheless.” The roundup includes baby pictures, sexually explicit images from webcams, and personal medical records. Approximately nine out of ten individuals spied on by the agency are not terrorist targets.

Worse news- the data is stored. The government, predictably, falls back on the ’national security’ edict in saying that some accidental collection of innocent data is necessary and unavoidable when seeking terrorist targets. But the 9 in 10 ratio of ’accidents’ to actual terrorist targets is scary to consider and raises the question of the efficacy and honesty of the NSA operations.

Snowden himself warned of the danger of this in his comments to the Post: ’ Even if one could conceivably justify the initial, inadvertent interception of baby pictures and love letters of innocent bystanders, their continued storage in government databases is both troubling and dangerous. Who knows how that information will be used in the future?” This is an excellent question worth pondering and is especially relevant in a litigious society such as the United States.

Since 9/11, national security has trumped many citizens liberties. Law enforcement has spied with impunity and without judicial constraint on numerous occasions. Now, the government has collected a trove of data which will be stored just awaiting access from an overzealous police department or ambitious prosecutor. It seems that, little by little, personal protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment are being whittled away.

The term ’mission creep’ is often applied in a cautionary way when worrying over the scope of a military operation growing out of control. What we have now is ’surveillance creep’. That is to say the gathering of information on innocent individuals is out of control and the danger lay in its spiraling more out of control and not being able to be reined-in at some future time.

Consider that it was just a few scant years ago when Barack Obama was ushered into office under a mandate of providing ’the most transparent government in history.” So where are we now? Is government more transparent or less transparent than 2009? I think we’d all agree on the answer to that one.

In providing details on this sordid state of affairs, the latest Snowden revelations help to highlight the depth and breadth of mass surveillance and its insidious creep into the daily lives of technology users. Unless we head it off, it will only get worse.

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