Why I am worried about the NSA

Monday, June 1st, 2015

People who know me will be aware that one of the main things I’ve been thinking about since June 2013 is the NSA, and surveillance in general.

This is, of course, not the case for most of those people themselves, so it is not immediately obvious to many of them why I have been spending so much of my time thinking about this. So in hopes of laying the foundation for people to understand why I care, here is my attempt at putting together all the pieces of this issue as I see them. I don’t expect to convince anyone of anything they didn’t already want to believe, but I would like people I know to understand my thinking (cue internet crazies showing up in 3, 2, 1…). It seems that a worrisome number of people I have talked to are genuinely not aware of the history and current events that makes me think that this matters.

This post is sort of long, but it originally included a few thousand more words on what exactly the NSA is doing, so I’ll spare you that for now. This is not an issue that I think should be boiled down to sound bites or discussed only in the abstract without examples, so I’ve tried to provide further reading in the inline hyperlinks. If you have enough interest in my thoughts to even be here in the first place, I hope you will stick with me to get the whole picture. You’re free to disagree about any of my conclusions, but hopefully you will at least see where I’m coming from and not dismiss me as a total conspiracy theorist (though I’m willing to hold down that corner if I have to).

Note that I may use the NSA and FBI interchangeably at points, because despite their vague assurances, I don’t believe there is really anything keeping them from secretly sharing everything with each other. When I interned at the Department of Homeland Security in college (a youthful indiscretion), I worked on a report that laid out the vision for how this would seamlessly work across agencies. We have evidence that this is now happening, so let’s go ahead and conflate the two. Update 6/24/2015: we have now learned that the FBI has access to the NSA’s cable taps, which means my assumption was right. </update>


I have heard from some of my friends who don’t think all this surveillance stuff is a big deal. Paraphrashing a couple reactions that come to mind:

  • “I don’t have anything to hide. Google and Facebook know everything I do anyway.”
  • “Isn’t this a pretty privileged thing to care about? You and your Burner friends are worried about getting in trouble for stuff you’re emailing about, but way more brown people are being screwed by the regular cops on the street every day.”
  • “Didn’t we already know they were doing this? Same old, same old.”

From where I’m sitting, these attitudes completely miss the point. I’m not worried about my own safety at all. I’m only partially offended about my own privacy being violated. This isn’t about what I personally am reading or talking about online. The problem, as I see it, is that the activities of the NSA and FBI are fundamentally incompatible with a free and democratic society.

In fact, I’m not even that concerned with them spying on most people. The scale of what they are doing is problematic, but the person who “doesn’t have anything to hide” is at least partially right: most people truly are totally uninteresting to the authorities, myself hopefully included (though the fact that most of us have curtains on our windows means that we surely must have something to hide from somebody).

This isn’t about you or me. As Edward Snowden himself put it, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” And you know what? Some people do have legitimate things to hide. Some people don’t (or wouldn’t today) post everything on Facebook. Some people are very interesting. And some of those people have gone on to become the most important and respected figures in our history.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were both subjected to heavy FBI interference. The full toolkit of 1960s-era surveillance was thrown at them, from telephoto lenses to tapped phones and secret informants. This was overt enough that they knew about it. It was no surprise to them that the power structure had no interest in their upending it, and this was just one of the many enemies they faced, from white racists to jilted members of the Nation of Islam. But it was a special kind of enemy: this was the state actively trying to disrupt peaceful political activity, to preserve its own power. These two leaders, whom we now venerate so highly, were the target of some third-world secret police shit, right here in the “center of the free world”, some of it under that same guise of “national security”.

The FBI had to expend physical human resources on this activity. An actual person had to listen to their calls, follow them around, sort through photos of them and figure out who’s who. You can’t do that to everyone, or even very many people. It was hard work to gather enough information for the letter the FBI sent to Dr. King telling him to kill himself. It was probably just as hard to gather and selectively edit the private conversations they sent to his wife to try to break up his marriage.

This isn’t hard any more. They have already done it, to everyone. They haven’t put all the pieces together, and they haven’t sent the letter yet, but they’re prepared to. GCHQ, the NSA’s psychotic little brother across the pond, is at the forefront of infiltrating and discrediting political and activist groups online, and it feels pretty dangerous to assume that the NSA and FBI would never get up to their old tricks again. (GCHQ also lumps investigative journalists in with terrorists, and I hope I don’t need to say anything else about that)

They only went after black leaders once they had risen in stature and had substantial followings, but the agencies are ready out in front this time. They’ve already got everything they need on the next up-and-coming leader, whoever that may be. Even local police have access to commercial software that will analyze social media for “any comments that could be construed as offensive” to assign a “threat rating” to individuals that officers are investigating, so we can hardly even imagine what the FBI and NSA can do.

They know who has attended the Black Lives Matter protests. They can see who in that movement is making noise on Facebook, and if those people decide to continue the discussion in “private”, they can likely read that too. The next Malcolm X may be building up their Twitter followers now, and they may not get much further if the intelligence agencies don’t want them to. Some leaders have emerged, and I’m afraid that they are probably too busy to keep themselves very safe online. This tweet and a follow-up Anonymous video claims to show the Department of Homeland Security tapping the phones of decidedly peaceful demonstrators in Chicago. Did they follow up with the NSA afterward? Update 9/23/2015: a “social media security” company apparently classified those leaders I mentioned as “Threat type: PHYSICAL, Severity: HIGH”, which is ridiculous. Not very happy to say that I was right, but well, look at that, someone is scared of them. </update>

I hope you can see now that it’s not me that I’m worried about, it’s our system, which is supposed to be among the freest in the world. I don’t think the leader of the free world should be wiretapping peaceful protestors. We’re no longer in any position to lecture China on human rights. It doesn’t look to me like the system is that much more tolerant of troublemakers now than it was during my parents’ time, so I don’t think we need to be handing it any more tools of oppression (speaking of my parents, I’ll briefly point out that the FBI went after white kids not unlike them in the 60s, too).

In high-school civics class, they taught me that democracy is “majority rule, with protection of minority rights”. Well, right now the majority, through its various three-letter agencies, is in a better position than ever before to control exactly which minorities get to exercise their first amendment rights, and I don’t have a lot of faith that it’s going to wield that power any more wisely than it did 50 years ago. The NYPD’s attitude toward Muslims in New York City certainly doesn’t seem very enlightened. Some of those people are really giving the rest of us a lesson on what we are in for. I can point to a local case, too: I have spoken to one (totally sane) police accountability organizer in SF who has good reason to suspect that their communications have come under surveillance by the city in the last year (sorry I can’t be more specific while respecting their privacy). This person has been individually targeted after they were identified; if their adversary were the federal government instead of the city, the NSA would already have quite a file on them. Luckily this person is brave enough to keep going, but who knows about the next one.

These real cases I can point to now are mostly local, but think bigger. There’s the FBI spying on Keystone XL activists, but I mean bigger than that. Consider Richard Nixon, whose enemies were black, white, and generally numerous. If Haldeman and Ehrlichman aren’t names right at the forefront of your consciousness, here’s a quick refresher: the president’s top staff hired some burglars to bug his Democratic opponent’s campaign headquarters, his lawyer unsuccessfully tried to get some money from the CIA to pay the burglars to keep quiet, the former attorney general eventually came up with the money, and a massive conspiracy ensued at the highest level of government to desperately try to keep this all secret. This was political corruption of the sort that is normally reserved for laughable kleptocracies. It is the kind of thing we want to believe couldn’t possibly happen in America. But it wasn’t even very long ago; some of the people involved in this are still alive.

Now imagine that these guys had access to the NSA’s technology today. I honestly do not understand how you could put those thoughts together and not see a problem for our entire system of government. What is going on today is not the “same old, same old”: Nixon had to hire some actual real guys to break into the DNC’s office to plant a physical microphone, but today the NSA could hand him all the information he could ask for, ready to go, with no one the wiser. Same goes for the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and all the rest of the illegal or otherwise evil things that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was doing on Nixon’s behalf.

This is why I believe the activities of the NSA and FBI are an existential threat to our free society. I am not at all comfortable with the amount of distance separating their activities from the Stasi, the most effective secret police in history, and this former Stasi officer agrees. I know it seems like we wouldn’t allow things to get to that point here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but I’m concerned that this complacent attitude is exactly why we may be in danger of it: if we don’t stop this now, we won’t be able to once it’s too late. If we allow this technology to exist, we have no idea who will come along and use it. The activities of Hoover’s FBI don’t seem like something we would allow in America, either, but it happened, and we may be setting the stage for it to happen again.

I don’t think the people setting up the system now intend to be creating the next Stasi. Most of them really do want to stop terrorists and drug cartels and all that. Every individual person involved can have the best intentions, but their collective efforts end up creating a system that gets out of control (n.b. I am deeply suspicious of the people in charge of the intelligence agencies, if not all of their underlings, but of course this is nothing new). Once it gets to that point, I think the history of the 60s and 70s shows that our democratic institutions would have trouble remaining pure, or at least however pure they currently are. You know that old saying about the relationship between power and corruption.


OK, so what do we do about it?

Today the Senate failed to renew the most controversial part of the Patriot Act, which was used to collect everyone’s phone records. That’s great, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the NSA got its hands on this bulk metadata another way, legal or otherwise. And more importantly, this doesn’t do anything about their wholesale surveillance of the internet.

But there is something else we can do. This issue is why I am planning to study security and cryptography when I go back to school this fall. If you would like one more link, here’s a piece published today explaining why I’m planning to cast my lot with the cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists rather than the politicians and lawyers (though you should still totally give your money to those lawyers at the EFF and ACLU).

If you’ve made it this far, wow, thanks. You probably have some thoughts after reading so many of mine, so feel free to share. You may not change my mind either, but I promise to listen and think about it, because you’ve already done me that courtesy.

One comment on “Why I am worried about the NSA

  1. Joe Friendly says:

    Glad to see your conviction on an important matter. The apathy of friends is a powerful force against, so if it helps to encourage you, I’d say that the people who agree with you on encryption, surveillance, human rights, are probably just afraid to publicly show support with a ‘like’ or a comment. (cruel irony, isn’t it)

    You’ve got a good mind and good heart, and similar texts to yours here will probably be quoted in 150 years when they discuss the fall of the empire, and the types of warnings that preceded it.

    -Joe Friendly, scared too

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