I don’t know why I have to explain this, but one of the memes going back and forth about the Edward Snowden revelations (when pundits aren’t criminalizing leakers or talking about journalists who should be in jail), is that your phone calls are not being listened to by the NSA and all its co-enablers (Microsoft, FaceBook, etc). “All the government is doing is collecting metadata”, the defenders say, usually as if they’re speaking to a five year old. Never mind that there’s some disagreement about that, and the fact that the FISA court has made it extremely easy to get permission to listen in on phone conversations should the government decide to do so. But the crowd in denial about the ramifications of the meta-data capture don’t even understand why any of us would be having an issue.
Let me raise a hypothetical here. Let’s say I’m a supporter of Free Anons, the hacktivist support group that sends friendly mail to the likes of people like Jeremy Hammond or Barrett Brown. I’m a registered voter. I don’t blow things up. I don’t advocate blowing things up. I don’t own firearms. I’ve given up most of my embarrassing habits of youth. I’ve actually kept up on my taxes in a reasonable fashion. But suddenly the government decides that my blog is getting influential. What do do, what to DO?
Well, if they have my metadata, they’ve got a big head start. I might be clean as a whistle, but there may be something that I’ve accessed over the Internet Tubes that will show up in my logs. Perhaps I’ve gone to a site with links to underage porn websites–I didn’t click but such sites are illegal. Maybe I’ve bet on sports online in a way that violates some dusty statute. Perhaps I have a sketchy friend, old roommate, relative that I don’t regularly deal with. I personally don’t contact him much because we aren’t really that close, but he is now supporting himself through dealing cocaine. Let’s say that this sort of endeavor is something that would show up on metadata–the algorithms would look for lots of very short phone calls or text messages from a wide variety of people within a community. That, coupled with bank information on my sketchy friend, would give someone in NSA or DHS sufficient cause to go after them. And once they have my friend, it’s fairly easy to get me.
NOW do you get it? It doesn’t matter what YOU were doing personally. If the feds want to lock you up, they have methods. And they will figure out how to get to you. And if you are between the feds and their target, they’re willing to turn your life into collateral damage. That’s the legacy left in the East by the Stasi and the KGB. That’s the legacy of the McCarthy Red Scare hearings. People who’ve done innocuous things can be targeted thanks to the NSA’s surveillance of metadata.
In the end of the book The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford’s excellent (if dated) history of the founding and operations of the NSA, Bamford writes what is surely an insider’s story about surveillance. The NSA was apparently aware of, and keeping tabs on, activity at the pay phones at Grand Central terminal in New York. It was known from surveillance that organized crime figures did their business through these phones, keeping the phones buzzing with orders for drugs or weapons or the occasional hit. But in 1983 (the year the book was released), surveillance was ALL the NSA could do–it was barred by law from using the information because foreign entities were not involved. This seems such a quaint and archaic idea of the protection of our privacy that we all used to take for granted.