(Article changed on September 23, 2013 at 09:39)This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
In the U.S. these days, privacy is so been-there-done-that. Just this week, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret outfit that hears only the government side of any argument and has generally been a rubberstamp for surveillance requests, declassified an opinion backing the full-scale collection and retention of the phone records ("metadata") of American citizens. That staggering act was, the judge claimed, in no way in violation of the Fourth Amendment or of American privacy. She also gave us a little peek at corporate courage in our brave new surveillance world, writing that "no holder of records [i.e., telecommunications company] who has received an order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an order."
That story, like so many others in recent months, arrived thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden about the ever-widening powers of the National Security Agency (NSA), led by a general who, we now know, lives in a world of intergalactic fantasies of power and control out of Star Trek: The Next Generation and once even worked in an Army intelligence war room created by a Hollywood set designer in the style of that show. As Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood indicate today, however, gigantic as the NSA's intrusions on privacy might be, they are only part of an uncomfortably large story in which many U.S. agencies and outfits feel free to take possession of our lives in ever more technologically advanced and intrusive ways.
Just this week, in fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (for which both Calabrese and Harwood work) released an important new report on the post-9/11 morphing of the FBI into a "secret domestic intelligence agency." In addition to the subterranean surveillance of protesters and religious groups, the Washington Post offered this summary list of the ways in which, according to that report, the Bureau has expanded in the twenty-first century: "The changes highlighted in the report include the FBI's racial and ethnic mapping program, which allows the FBI to collect demographic information to map American communities by race and ethnicity; the use of secret National Security Letters, which asked for account information from telecommunications companies, financial institutions, and credit agencies and required no judicial approval; warrantless wiretapping; and the recent revelations about the government's use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to track all U.S. telephone calls."
All of this and, as you'll see in today's piece, so much more has been done in the name of American "safety," the mantra with which Washington has funded and built its new version of a global surveillance state. Tom
For at least the last six years, government agents have been exploiting an AT&T database filled with the records of billions of American phone calls from as far back as 1987. The rationale behind this dragnet intrusion, codenamed Hemisphere, is to find suspicious links between people with "burner" phones (prepaid mobile phones easy to buy, use, and quickly dispose of), which are popular with drug dealers. The secret information gleaned from this relationship with the telecommunications giant has been used to convict Americans of various crimes, all without the defendants or the courts having any idea how the feds stumbled upon them in the first place. The program is so secret, so powerful, and so alarming that agents "are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document," according to a recently released government PowerPoint slide.
You're probably assuming that we're talking about another blanket National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program focused on the communications of innocent Americans, as revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. We could be, but we're not. We're talking about a program of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a domestic law enforcement agency.
While in these last months the NSA has cast a long, dark shadow over American privacy, don't for a second imagine that it's the only government agency systematically and often secretly intruding on our lives. In fact, a remarkable traffic jam of local, state, and federal government authorities turn out to be exploiting technology to wriggle into the most intimate crevices of our lives, take notes, use them for their own purposes, or simply file them away for years on end.
"Technology in this world is moving faster than government or law can keep up," the CIA's Chief Technology Officer Gus Hunt told a tech conference in March. "It's moving faster I would argue than you can keep up: You should be asking the question of what are your rights and who owns your data."
Hunt's right. The American public and the legal system have been left in the dust when it comes to infringements and intrusions on privacy. In one way, however, he was undoubtedly being coy. After all, the government is an active, eager, and early adopter of intrusive technologies that make citizens' lives transparent on demand.
Increasingly, the relationship between Americans and their government has come to resemble a one-way mirror dividing an interrogation room. Its operatives and agents can see us whenever they want, while we can never quite be sure if there's someone on the other side of the glass watching and recording what we say or what we do -- and many within local, state, and federal government want to ensure that no one ever flicks on the light on their side of the glass.
So here's a beginner's guide to some of what's happening on the other side of that mirror.
You Won't Need a Warrant for That
Have no doubt: the Fourth Amendment is fast becoming an artifact of a paper-based world.
The core idea behind that amendment, which prohibits the government from "unreasonable searches and seizures," is that its representatives only get to invade people's private space -- their "persons, houses, papers, and effects" -- after it convinces a judge that they're up to no good. The technological advances of the last few decades have, however, seriously undermined this core constitutional protection against overzealous government agents, because more and more people don't store their private information in their homes or offices, but on company servers.