America’s Digital Stasi

Lenin is watching montage, Stasi Museum. Berlin, June 2010.

PRISM just became the hottest word in America. With the disclosure Thursday by the Washington Post of an explosive PowerPoint presentation from a “career intelligence officer” documenting the breadth of government surveillance on the Internet, user privacy has turned into a full-blown civil rights crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1950s.

According to the report, the National Security Agency (NSA) collects data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. Government analysts go into the servers of these internet providers and mine for “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs” using search terms that confirm the information as “foreign” to a mere 51% confidence level (a huge percentage of foreign Internet traffic comes through American servers at some point.)

Of the trillions of pieces of data that the NSA sifts through, 1 in 7 comes from the PRISM program. All of the major Internet service and online communications providers are alleged to have granted access to anything outside the United States, and a whole lot that’s inside the US, as well.

Everyone denies it, of course. But their denials aren’t ringing very true. This was the one I found most emblematic, from Google: “We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”

All they’re saying is that they haven’t plugged everything into the government’s system. But if the NSA, as the Post piece alleges, obtains a court order, or can pressure the company in some other way, the search giant will do what it feels it necessary in order to please the authorities. The end result: Google becomes an accomplice to the state’s violation of its American customers’ constitutional rights. Concerning its foreign clients, the issue is murky, but no less concerning.

The court in question is not an open one, since the warrants are ostensibly intended to find terrorists, and when you use the “T” word, pretty much anything goes. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union points out that “This is a court that meets in secret, allows only the government to appear before it, and publishes almost none of its opinions. It has never been an effective check on government.” It doesn’t get any more Orwellian than that.

There are other ways for the government to get what it wants from Internet companies. According to the Post report: “In exchange for immunity from lawsuits, companies such as Yahoo and AOL are obliged to accept a ‘directive’ from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to open their servers to the FBI’s Data Intercept Technology Unit, which handles liaison to U.S. companies from the NSA. In 2008, Congress gave the Justice Department authority for a secret order from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court to compel a reluctant company ‘to comply.’”

Special phone, Stasi Museum. Berlin, July 2010.
Special phone, Stasi Museum. Berlin, July 2010.

It’s all very tidy. Of course, the entire issue depends on the word and the PowerPoint presentation of one man. That isn’t a ton of evidence and it’s fair to be skeptical. But then the government’s spokesperson, said that the data mining is done “…pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States.” That statement would seem to confirm PRISM’s existence, and contradict the flat denials of Google et al. And nothing in his statement downplays the shocking size and scope of the spying.

It’s worth noting that this shocking disclosure comes out at the same time as Bradley Manning’s trial for exposing US war crimes in Iraq is getting underway. The two incidents are of a piece. Both call into serious question not only the trust Americans can have in their government, but how the rest of the world must be feeling about us. Pity Agent X who squealed. If Manning’s fate is any guide, this person is going not going to have an easy ride, either.

The conspiracy theorists may be going “Aha!” at all of this. It’s perfect fodder for their New World Order sorts of fantasies. However, what it actually shows is just how hard it is to keep such massive secrets. All you need to expose it is one person, whose conscience starts to bother them, and who has sufficient courage to expose state secrets. That describes Bradley Manning, and it seems to describe the anonymous intelligence official who revealed the PRISM program.

In the United States, we have a tendency, which some call “American Exceptionalism” to view these things exclusively in terms of how they affect us. Not the rest of the world. Thus, it’s okay to spy on private citizens, abroad, but not domestically. Manning has a great many detractors in the US because they object to his decision that the US military should not be permitted to cover up war crimes.

The super special phone. Stasi Museum, Berlin.
The super special phone. Stasi Museum, Berlin.

Besides, it’s not for Americans to decide what they should and should not know about their military’s conduct. That’s the government’s responsibility. This is one of the more galling aspects of the White House’s response to the PRISM program’s disclosure. Implicit in what its spokesperson said was that only US citizens have a right to privacy. For reasons of national security, everyone else is fair game for their covert surveillance program.

Still, Americans should be worried. The coming days will say a lot. Will this be a story which, like the Benghazi embassy attack, for example, remains in the public spotlight, with members of Congress demanding a full accounting of not only the actions of the intelligence community and the White House, but also of their own complicity in the affair, but which, unlike Benghazi, stays in that spotlight for valid, not baldly political, reasons? That Congressional complicity was very clear in the Post’s account.

Or will this fade from the headlines as, no doubt, many in government and in the internet industry would like it to? If that is the case, the effect is sure to be profound. A whole lot of people are going to be turning back to snail mail and the telephone and meeting face to face rather than use the internet for their communications. That will be true for social interactions as well as business.

Even those options will be only marginally better. New reports are coming in of monitoring of telephone communications and credit card transactions. The issue of the loss of privacy is ballooning, and, quite frankly, it’s time for the American people to act.

Much of this started with the USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. 9/11 gave Bush the political cover he needed, and frightened the public enough, for Americans to accept his government’s rollback of their civil rights. If only Bush was the only guilty party, though. The responsibility is what Americans would call “bipartisan,” meaning that the Democrats are at fault, too. Obama hasn’t just continued Bush’s invasive policies. Under his watch, America’s security services have expanded these surveillance programs exponentially.

This should present a unique opportunity to Americans. It’s a real opportunity for everyone in the United States to stand up and say that our government has gone too far in permitting the security establishment to take the kinds of liberties it does. Our private lives are constitutionally sacrosanct, and should not be militarized. The NSA, the FBI, and the Pentagon have far exceeded their mandate, and need to be put back in the bottle by America’s political echelon.

Will the US public take advantage of this moment? We’ll see. But if we do, it will be the job of civil liberties advocates to emphasize that this crisis is not just about American privacy. It’s also about the privacy of foreigners, dependent on US communications technologies and services for their Internet use. Their civil rights, after all are equal, just different. Treating foreigners like they are enemy combatants in the making, or suspected terrorists, ought to be just as illegal. The right to privacy is universal, and we need to start treating it that way.

That doesn’t mean there can never be reasonable surveillance. Sometimes, compromises do have to be made in the name of security. Sometimes governments and militaries do need to keep things secret.

But ultimately, democracy demands that such acts be taken only when absolutely necessary. We must not accept covering up war crimes, as we attempted to do, and which Bradley Manning exposed. We must not accept the notion that it is reasonable to invade the privacy of millions of innocent citizens, whether they are American or not, on the off chance we might uncover a “terrorist plot.” Indeed, we must start dealing with our fear and stop allowing it to lead us away from our own hard-won freedoms, whether that is fear of “Commies” or of Islamists.

Americans must confront the fact that they’ve let their anxieties run out of control. No government institution better epitomizes this than the US military, which is tasked, however, poorly, with safeguarding the country’s safety. Ideally, this should be a noble pursuit. There’s a lot to protect in the United States. But it cannot come at the expense of our own democracy. Nor can it be allowed to deny so basic a right as privacy to the rest of the world.

The problem is the political direction given. It’s as destructive as the threats it’s supposed to help interdict. And it’s as much about the limitations of America’s political class, as it is about the moral limitations of the country’s armed forces.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.