NSA Leaks: A Quick Recap For Every Privacy Advocate


The National Security Agency is probably spying on you. Weird to read it put that way, isn’t it?

Ever since Edward Snowden revealed a seeming treasure trove of documents to the journalist Glenn Greenwald that detailed many secretive intelligence gathering methods of the NSA and other intelligence agencies, there has been a steady stream of new revelations on the practice. The more comes out, the more Orwellian the United States Government looks. And, as they say, the hits just keep on coming.

Before we move on, let's take a second to review the illustrious company you keep just by virtue of being a (potential) target of NSA spying. In the last few days allegations have been raised that the NSA spies on ordinary French citizens by intercepting phone calls. While France is a special place, it would take some serious belief in French exceptionalism to believe that this was the only country where such a program takes place. In addition to the French and who knows who else, evidence has come forward that the NSA spies on Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, Mexico’s former President Felipe Calderon and current President Enrique Peña Nieto (before he took office), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and many others. Congratulations on being a member of a club with such important members… My apologies it isn’t more exclusive.

Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. When details of these programs first emerged the government assured us it only collects metadata under the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) — including information like who you call, when you made the calls, how long the calls were and where the call came from — not the content of calls or texts. They don’t record you; they just take down these details to look for patterns.

But wait, what was the new deal with France? New reports state that the NSA spying program in France intercepted phone calls and text messages to the tune of 70.3 million calls in a 30-day period at the beginning of this year. That’s more than two million wiretaps a day. The NSA intercepted and recorded these calls and texts; they didn' just take down the metadata and looking for patterns.

Maybe there are just a lot of terrorists on that side of the Atlantic? Besides, that’s a different country. Just because the NSA practices a certain type of spying over there does not mean that they would do it to U.S. citizens. True. Very true. It is, however worth noting that when FISA was reauthorized in 2008 the government made clear that it would only “target” individuals overseas. Snowden’s revelations have made it clear that FISA snooping did not only target the phone records of overseas targets, it even targeted Americans who had never made an overseas call.

Wait you say, what about all of the attacks these intelligence gathering methods have stopped? All the lives they saved? Two weeks after the first of Snowden’s leaks President Obama asserted that more than 50 attacks had been thwarted thanks to the NSA’s intelligence gathering. Ah the dreaded counterfactual. “If we didn’t do this then this would have happened. Trust us!” It’s even more potent when paired with “we can’t tell you what we did or who we did it to, because of national security, but don’t worry, we did it, you’re safe, you’re welcome.”

Let’s review. The U.S. has a secret government program that has consistently breached both the personnel and data limitations that the government has promised us it will abide by. The same agency has spied on friendly states’ leaders and ordinary citizens who, as far as we are allowed to know, are only guilty of owning and using a phone. The government says if they hadn’t, at least 50 terrorist attacks would have happened around the world. Whenever anyone has the audacity to ask for some clarification, national security concerns are cited and they are sent home wanting.

Ben Franklin famously said, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Ben Franklin also didn’t live in the world we live in. There is no knowing what he would have thought if he encountered the threats today's world faces on an everyday basis. That is, of course, if he could even find a way to wrap his be-wigged head around them. While Ben Franklin said those famous words a technological millennium behind our world, he did know a thing or two about who we are and who we want to be as a country. In times of immense fear it is easy for government agencies to zealously attack the threat and use that fear to get the wider public to accept their actions, even those taken utterly without review or oversight.

I have no idea what the government is and is not doing. I have no idea if some poor NSA employee has been given the inane task of reading my emails and text messages (I’m really sorry they are so boring, can you figure out how to unsubscribe me from LinkedIn emails?) Unfortunately, that’s precisely the point. The NSA has built a vast and seemingly unending intelligence empire based on truly impressive modern technology. Every time they have publicly asserted some substantive limitation to the surveillance more documents have shown this was simply not the case.

As Americans, we know our government spies, we know it does so on its own citizens, and we know it does so on foreign citizens. We don’t know the extent of the spying, the usefulness of the spying, or what is required in the way of suspicion for a person to be spied on. It’s time for the government to answer some questions about its spying programs. We live in a free society where the government has to answer to its citizens. Secrecy and covert spying on citizens with unclear justification is not the America Ben Franklin envisioned and it’s not the country I want to live in.