Another week, another round of revelations about how deeply federal—and local—law enforcement has been peering into people's lives for the past several years.
Can anything surprise us anymore? At this point, it seems worthwhile to move the conversation in a post-Snowden direction—with his ticker tape of fresh daily disclosures rolling in the background, of course—and start thinking seriously about why this is a problem. One chain of effects, for example: such pervasive surveillance can discourage people who'd like to express dissent (anti-war protesters, economic justice protesters, anti coal-train protesters), which reduces political diversity and narrows the bandwidth of political discourse, which sucks the new ideas and lifeblood out of a democracy, which makes the country a crappier place to live. That's one.
First: Your encryption is probably worthless. The Guardian has released more evidence from the Snowden treasure trove, showing that the NSA (and its British counterpart GCHQ) has "successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data."
Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA control over setting of international encryption standards, the use of supercomputers to break encryption with "brute force", and – the most closely guarded secret of all – collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers themselves...
Independent security experts have long suspected that the NSA has been introducing weaknesses into security standards, a fact confirmed for the first time by another secret document. It shows the agency worked covertly to get its own version of a draft security standard issued by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology approved for worldwide use in 2006.
"Eventually, NSA became the sole editor," the document states.
Second: The New York Police Department has been conducting extensive surveillance of East Coast Muslim populations, probably more extensive than any national-level spy agency. There were hints of this a few years ago—stories about "rakers" and "mosque crawlers" who, with supposed help from the CIA, spied on many people who were not suspected of any wrongdoing. Now New York Magazine has a long profile about the program, including some pathetically comical details:
When [NYPD Lt. Hector] Berdecia asked officers whether they suspected a threat that should be reported up the chain of command, he was told they were conducting routine follow-up visits. But a look at the reports showed nothing worth following up.
That's when Berdecia realized that, in the hunt for terrorists, his detectives gravitated towards the best food.
Occasionally, Berdecia would see receipts for up to $40 at Middle Eastern sweet shops. Sometimes, the receipts showed detectives buying a bunch of pastries just before quitting time.
Because the rakers never received specialized training, their reports contained numerous errors. Sephardic Jews and Lebanese Christians were mistaken for Syrian Muslims.
The NYPD wound up spying on liberal protest groups as well and tried to "peddle" its reports to the FBI. The Bureau refused because...
The Demographics detectives, the FBI concluded, were effectively acting as undercover officers, targeting businesses without cause and collecting information related to politics and religion. Accepting the NYPD’s reports would violate FBI rules.
As the article points out, federal oversight of domestic spying (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act stuff) is full of problems but at least it exists. Or pretends to.
But when you've got the Army spying on anti-war protesters via local county sheriffs' offices (the John Towery case, or the NYPD taking it upon itself to surveil Muslims all over New York just because they're Muslim, you get even less accountability and more potential for abuse.
And third: The DEA has a larger phone trove—in some cases, going back to 1987—than the NSA. From the New York Times:
For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls — parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency’s hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.
The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.