Some restrictions do apply.
About six months ago, I posted a long, long piece on the NSA and asked VA NOW members to contact their state and federal representatives to let them know that life in a surveillance state is not an American life. Since then, a few, little things, have changed for the better. However, that surveillance state is still intact.
All oppressive authorities— political, religious, societal, parental— rely on this vital truth, using it as a principal tool to enforce orthodoxies, compel adherence, and quash dissent. It is in their interest to convey that nothing their subjects do will escape the knowledge of the authorities. Far more effectively than a police force, the deprivation of privacy will crush any temptation to deviate from rules and norms.*
Feminist activists do a great deal of dissenting and deviating. We dissent from the religious and culturally conservative agenda that is the current loudest defense of the age-old patriarchy and its values. We dissent from its enforcer, the rape culture. We dissent from those elements of capitalism that exhaust workers and families. We dissent from the classist assumption that basic good health is the province of the wealthy, and that the rest of us can just keep eating our corn-syrup infused everything, or just soda and chips. And many, many of us dissent vigorously from our government’s neo-conservative foreign policy, our sly expansion of empire, our
adventurous wars, and our combination of universal surveillance and extra-judicial killing of (anyone) American citizens. We dissent from a government that can, effectively, revoke our citizenship and maroon us in a no-woman’s land called Enemy Combatant from which country there is no known return.
Which means that, as feminists, we have a problem with the National Security Agency (and its partner agencies of HLS and cooperating internet companies) having the ability and the permission to observe us in ways that make our political associations and intentions manifestly clear before we even manifest them. This is what the collection of your meta-data means. With your meta-data, the NSA can tell who you called, when, and from all that figure out a lot about you.
Listening in on a woman calling an abortion clinic might reveal nothing more than someone confirming an appointment with a generic-sounding establishment (“East Side Clinic” or “Dr. Jones’s office”). But the metadata would show far more than that: it would reveal the identity of those who were called. The same is true of calls to a dating service, a gay and lesbian center, a drug addiction clinic, an HIV specialist, or a suicide hotline. Metadata would likewise unmask a conversation between a human rights activist and an informant in a repressive regime, or a confidential source calling a journalist to reveal high-level wrongdoing.+
History has demonstrated again and again that just knowing that you live in a state that can record your life in this way, and threaten you with loss of citizen protections, cows most of the population into stupefied obedience and silences the most imaginative contributions to progress and human dignity. This kind of surveillance works, and works well, even if they never look at you. You begin to live and write and think as if they are looking at you, and you don’t want to be in that depth of trouble. Chapter 4 of No Place to Hide, from which I have been quoting, deals with this history, the methods of surveillance, and the normal psychological and behavioral responses humans have to them. They are dramatic.
A prime justification for surveillance— that it’s for the benefit of the population— relies on projecting a view of the world that divides citizens into categories of good people and bad people. In that view, the authorities use their surveillance powers only against bad people, those who are “doing something wrong,” and only they have anything to fear from the invasion of their privacy. This is an old tactic. In a 1969 Time magazine article about Americans’ growing concerns over the US government’s surveillance powers, Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell , assured readers that “any citizen of the United States who is not involved in some illegal activity has nothing to fear whatsoever.” **
Given the intense surveillance of civil rights and anti-war activists, we know that to have been a dead lie.
So, hurray!, the NSA has been ordered by Congress to stop collecting meta-data of phone calls made by and to US citizens. It’s the law. This is a worthy revision to the powers granted by the PARIOT Act.
So it’s something, but it’s really nothing.
The UK newspaper, The Guardian (which has been challenging over-bearing governments for over 200 years), publishes most of the best work on the NSA because Glen Greenwald was a reporter with them when Edward Snowden contacted him. Two recent articles clarify the state of the surveillance state.
By a substantial and bipartisan margin, 293 to 121, representatives moved to ban the NSA from searching warrantlessly through its troves of ostensibly foreign communications content for Americans’ data, the so-called “backdoor search” provision revealed in August by the Guardian thanks to leaks from Edward Snowden. ++
So, the NSA can’t look right at your meta-data, nor can it look at you just because you know someone who lives in Libiya.
But, it can still do even worse than that.
But exactly one year on, the NSA’s greatest wound so far has been its PR difficulties. The agency, under public pressure, has divested itself of exactly one activity, the bulk collection of US phone data. Yet while the NSA will not itself continue to gather the data directly, the major post-Snowden legislative fix grants the agency wide berth in accessing and searching large volumes of phone records, and even wider latitude in collecting other kinds of data.
There are no other mandated reforms. President Obama in January added restrictions on the dissemination of non-Americans’ “personal information“, but that has not been codified in law. The coalition of large internet firms demanding greater safeguards around their customers’ email, browsing and search histories have received nothing from the government for their effort. A recent move to block the NSA from undermining commercial encryption and amassing a library of software vulnerabilities never received a legislative hearing. (Obama, in defiance of a government privacy board, permits the NSA to exploit some software flaws for national security purposes.) ***
The provisions that force software and internet companies to insert backdoors in their encryption and security systems (this includes your banking and health records), that even infiltrates anonymizers like Tor, yeah that’s still totally intact. NSA can still sneak around back that way, and with much less restriction than has recently been applied to your cell phone. These backdoors make your computer, and your bank, and our whole national security apparatus MORE VULNERABLE to malicious hackers because weakened encryption is weakened encryption. More deliberately, the NSA was aware of the Heartbleed bug, and used it to assist its own hacking operations for a couple of years.
You really do have to wonder about the ethical code driving this organization: collect it all, by any means necessary.
It’s change without change.
The NSA is still doing all manner of bulk surveillance of whole national populations. More the rule for over-riding this new restriction is as low as “reasonable suspicion” which is nothing near as strong as the “probable cause” that comes to mind when we think of “search and seizure.” As Greenwald puts it in No Place to Hide, let’s say your pizza deliverer is new immigrant to the US from a nation that harbors, or just can’t kick out, known terrorist groups or radical clerics. Say his mosque in the US is giving money to Boko Haram, but he doesn’t know that, and you don’t know that, and the NSA does. But, he gets lost on the way to your house and calls you from his cell phone for directions. Boom. You are now, and possibly forever, captured in the two-degrees net, the collection system just automatically logging your call activity for the foreseeable future. There is almost no way for you, innocent citizen, to know which of your business or social interactions might get you swept up in the data dragnet.
And, if any of that pattern is interpreted by an algorithm or a human to constitute “reasonable suspicion” that you are up to some kind of dissent/no-good, a warrant can be gained that allows the NSA to put a “tap” on your phones, your computer, and your computer’s or phone’s camera and microphones and use all that to observe you whether you are using the machines or not, and whether you turn the machines on or not. The NSA can – I am not making this up – turn your cameras on and watch and listen to you whenever they like once they have that warrant. The PowerPoint slides in Greenwald’s chapter 3 are fascinating.
But, you know, not to worry really. BECAUSE IT DOESN’T EVEN WORK (as a method of terror prevention, as advertised). CBS DC reported in January 2014 on a study by the New America Foundation that found:
… the bulk collection methods used by the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act appear to have played an identifiable role in, at most, 1.8 percent of the terrorism investigations.
“Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group,” reads the report.
The only result toward which this kind of surveillance is effective is to coerce as many people (on Earth) as possible to leave the status quo and the agendas of the elite and power roll along without our pesky interference. So, Virginia NOW is asking you to keep these issues in mind. Check in with The Guardian from time to time. Their US edition has devoted a whole department to the NSA. The Atlantic and Salon have also done some excellent original reporting on issues of security and surveillance.
We also ask that you consider, again, writing to your representatives. You can find their contact information on our Represent page (click here, scroll down). Writing your own letter, in your own words, is the most effective way to get the staff’s attention and get your opinion counted.
Only imagine this: a future in which a conservative as tenacious and aggressive and paranoid as Representative Issa or J. Edgar Hoover is the POTUS, and she or he decides that, say, pro-choice organizations need to be observed more closely because liberals are notoriously tolerant of Muslims. Sadly, that is the level of reasoning many conservatives display lately. The level of reasoning that had the FBI watching Ernest Hemingway, a surveillance program that is now seen as helping to drive the Nobel Prize winner to suicide in 1969. Now imagine that a largely conservative Intelligence Committee agrees with that POTUS. Is that impossible? No, not at all. Is it the most American thing in the world to assure ourselves and future generations that it does not happen? Yes, yes it is.
Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the local police need a real, written, signed warrant to search your cell phone in the event of your arrest or suspicion. This decision, now this might eventually have some meaningful impact on surveillance. But, that is yet to be seen.
Feminism and feminists do mean to change the world in deep and permanent ways. The State is not fond of that idea, and will use both surveillance and force (as we saw with Occupy) to prevent it. Act up. Speak out.
Carry on, people!
Dr. Simone Roberts
Web Editor / Historian
*Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Kindle Locations 2346-2349). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
+Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Kindle Locations 2039-2043). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
**Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Kindle Locations 2492-2498). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
++ Ackerman, Spencer. House of Representatives moves to ban NSA’s ‘backdoor search’ provision TheGuardian.com, Friday 20 June 2014.
*** Ackerman, Spencer. Edward Snowden, a year on: reformers frustrated as NSA preserves its power.TheGuardian.com, Thursday 5 June 2014.