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    Is Anyone Really Surprised the NSA Is Currently Spying on Millions of Americans?

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Image: Emory Allen/Flickr

    Update: So a lot of revelations have come out since I wrote this piece. It's not just Verizon data that was being stored, it was every phone in the US. Add to that the PRISM program, in which the NSA reportedly was able to glean data from nearly every major tech company in the US, and we've got a hell of a problem on our hands. The point of this piece is still the same: US agencies, given a free hand via secret policies enacted to fight the terror war, have systematically eliminated the concept of electronic privacy for US citizens.

    Verizon is currently handing over millions of customer phone records to the National Security Agency on a daily basis, as required by a secret court order revealed by a blockbuster Guardian report by Glenn Greenwald. Here is stark proof that the NSA conducts incredibly wide-ranging surveillance on American citizens without individual warrants and in secret. This is post-terror war America. The question is, are you really surprised?

    The ruling was handed down on April 25 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which was established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and which is a secret court, due to the state secrets it naturally deals in. The ruling requires Verizon to give up all phone records for all of its subscribers for a three month period ending July 19th, and bars Verizon from ever mentioning the ruling itself.

    According to the language of the order, Verizon must hand over, on "an ongoing daily basis," "an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records or "telephony metadata" created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."

    "Telephony metadata" includes everything about a phone call aside from the conversation itself: phone numbers involved, location data, call duration and timing, and any unique identifiers used by Verizon or cell networks. According to the order, what it considers metadata does not include subscriber information.

    The US government has become so distrustful of its own citizens that the NSA has turned into a pathological information hoarder.

    Regardless, the NSA now has legal permission to track all Verizon subscribers' phone calls for three months, which will give the NSA a comprehensive picture of millions of American's phone activities. That permission was granted in secret by a secret court tasked with foreign intelligence and surveillance law, not surveillance of domestic citizens. Verizon was expressly barred from notifying its customers of the secret ruling. Aside from being unfathomably broad and quite possibly not limited to Verizon, the ruling is strange because it's both unclear why FISC ruled on it and, more importantly, what the NSA argued it needed the data for.

    We're talking about millions upon millions records here, all of which the NSA apparently wants because it will give it a vast picture of everyone Americans talk to, in the hopes that somehow all that data can be sorted and crunched to give a portrait of who's an actual threat. I really enjoyed the above tweet, because I think it sums up the insanity of all of this. Not only is a US government agency legally spying on its citizens on a scope that's so unfathomably broad that no single person can comprehend just how much data is being skimmed, but the NSA also has no clear motive.

    The US government has become so distrustful of its own citizens that the NSA has turned into a pathological information hoarder. The FBI loves to bitch about its "going dark" problem, saying it needs more access to internet communications because it can't fight through the clutter. But now the NSA has the opposite problem: It has detailed phone records of millions of Americans. How is such an offensive dragnet, one that's at least 99.99% inane phone calls, going to keep the United States safe?

    But perhaps the most shocking thing about Greenwald's incredible scoop is that it's shocking at all. We know the NSA has been testing massive information dragnet software since at least the turn of the century, when it took its incredible info-gathering abilities on a tour through New Zealand and other friendly countries. More recently, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to FISA, which gives the NSA broad spying powers and which Congress recently renewed for five years without really understanding what it does. 

    Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and the FBI have continued to win their decade-long war on privacy, which started in the name of the war on terror and which now features the institution increasingly getting a free hand in spying on Americans without warrants, when it's not relentlessly chasing down leaks by spying on major news organizations.

    No paragraph sums it up better than this one from Tim Shorrock's stunning March piece in The Nation

    By using the NSA to spy on American citizens, [NSA whistleblower] Binney told me, the United States has created a police state with few parallels in history: “It’s better than anything that the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo and SS ever had.” He compared the situation to the Weimar Republic, a brief period of liberal democracy that preceded the Nazi takeover of Germany. “We’re just waiting to turn the key,” he said.

    Note that Shorrock's piece was about President Obama's unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, which is an entirely separate, albeit equally important, topic to government spying. But this is the America we live in now. After slowly giving up our rights to privacy and an open government in the name of fighting terror, we've rapidly lost ground to the US government's relentless march towards a black-and-white future where the government can do whatever it wants in secret, while citizen's every move and every conversation is tracked, cataloged, and stored away.