The Sneaky Slippery Slope

imagesMuch has been made of the recent NSA warrantless surveillance controversy and the man who leaked these classified documents for the world to see, and regardless if you think Edward Snowden is a hero for the justice and freedom of humanity or a treacherous traitor enabling terrorists to raze America to the ground, you have to admit these documents are quite telling of the lengths our government is willing to go in the name of security.  Now multitudes of people have come out both supporting and condemning the United State’s clandestine eavesdropping activities, and to try and argue against this or that person would be an exercise in futility.  Instead, I want to highlight a couple of key aspects of of the NSA’s program (appropriately named Operation PRISM) and how, in my opinion the temptation to overstep boundaries the U.S. government themselves have set are too easy to exercise.

The first thing to understand is what exactly Operation PRISM is and what it entails.  Operation PRISM is a Top-Secret U.S. government program involving the gathering of personal information from nine major internet companies (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple) so they can sift through that information searching for possible terrorist threats.  This program is directed toward non-US citizens living outside the United States and receives its permissions from a federal judge operating out of a special court under the broader ranging Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).  So in theory, the United States government (as well as the British GCHQ) mine personal data on foreign citizens in sovereign states to try and root out those who might be plotting an attack against the homeland or its interests abroad.

Here one might ask (especially if they live somewhere other than the United States) “well what about America, does the NSA spy on American citizens?”  After all it only seems fair right?  The answer is of course a resounding YES.  According to rt.com:

With the participation of those companies, PRISM – and therefore Washington intelligence workers – “incidentally” have access to the bulk of Americans’ email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP (Skype) chats, file transfers and social networking details.

Now the use of the term “incidentally” implies that any information gained on American citizens is done so accidentally and Obama has publicly defended these practices with a balancing security and privacy argument as reported in the Huffington Post:

It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.

There has been a lot of outrage over these accusations that the U.S. government has been spying on its own citizens.  Outrage further fueled by Obama admitting the truth of the claims, and defending them with various blurred lines in the sand such as “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls” (there is also a program for tapping phones) and throwing the blame on every member of Congress who has been briefed on the program (i.e. ALL of them).  However, not as much outrage as you might think; according to a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll “56 percent of Americans consider the NSA’s accessing of telephone call records of millions of Americans through secret court orders “acceptable,” while 41 percent call the practice “unacceptable.”  Now if 56 percent of Americans are alright with their government spying on them out of their own fear of an attack, how many do you think are on board with spying on the rest of the world?  There is this inflated sense of national self-hood in this country and a tendency to think of the rest of the world as inferior to or not-as-good-as the ol’ USA that is generally shared by a great many of the masses.  Unfortunately for these apathetic denizens of the land of freedom, fried-foods, and fatties, there are a great number of people throughout the world having their privacy trampled on by government sanctioned eavesdropping.

In the interest of brevity I will only point out a couple of examples where the NSA’s spying techniques seem to be increasingly slipping down that slope of continual lines in the sand.  The first comes from our friends up north.  CTV News has reported that Canadians using American based online services (i.e. any of those listed above) might also be subjected to surveillance.  According to Canadian cyber-security expert Keith Murphy “The vast majority of our data and activities online is being routed through our neighbours to the south and so we are subject to all their regulations anyway, regardless of what the authorities in Canada might be doing.”  Now there are a bunch of oversights built into the program that are supposed to limit who can be spied on and in what context, and certainly the US wouldn’t want Canada (or any of their other allies) thinking they were spying on them…especially if the NSA actually IS spying on them.

In the latest round of leaked documents from mister Snowden, the US has been spying on 38 different embassies and mission which they call “targets.”  The spying involves both phone tapping as well as monitoring electronic communications, includes American allies such as France, Italy, Greece, Mexico, EU missions, Japan, South Korea, and India, and apparently have the aim of finding out inside knowledge on policy disagreements between them and the US.  Obama is vehemently defending the NSA’s practices with rather vague statements such as “In European capitals, people are interested not just in what I had for breakfast, but what my talking points are when I’m meeting with their leaders,” which suggests that Obama wants to say European countries also gather intelligence while he himself scrambles to develop some sort of cogent line of thought.  What I find shocking here is that the NSA’s justification for spying on American allies.  Gathering inside information on policy differences is a far cry from searching for potential terrorist plots and now we see how the slippery slope is progressing.  In a months time we have gone from the NSA gathering information on foreigners suspected of plotting against America, to spying on its own citizens (which is A-OK as long as the scary bad guys can’t hurt them), to spying on their allies who might think differently about global warming or corporate sanctions.  It is a scary thing when this sort of power can go unchecked as it apparently is.  I’m sure no secret court around gave the NSA (or anybody else) permission to spy on France or Italy which further suggests that this power is indeed going unchecked.  I will be curious to see what sort of excuse Obama’s administration will come up to explain away this latest allegation and even more curious as to see what next revelations will come to light.

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