WRITTEN BY: ANTHONY PEARSON
The 2010’s have proven to be a turbulent decade thus far, with issues such as social justice, foreign policy, healthcare, immigration and more being observed and contested like never before. With so much going on in an age where the world is more connected than ever, it can be easy to lose sight of one of the biggest issues.
For almost sixteen years now, one threat freedom and liberty has loomed under the guise of safety and the fight against terrorism. Moving into the second half of the decade, the National Security Agency (NSA) is preparing to formalize its attack on the fourth amendment. Once it has finished, there may be no turning back.
The National Security Agency (NSA), established in 1952 by president Truman, is an intelligence organization under the United States government tasked with the collection and processing of information and data for the purposes of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. In other words, the NSA collects and processes information on a large scale, which it then hands over to other government agencies in an effort to thwart attacks on the United States and its interests. In theory, the NSA should be a good thing. After all, national security is crucial worldwide. Unfortunately, the NSA’s power is susceptible to a great deal of abuse. In post-9/11 America, this abuse has become extreme.
Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA modified its approach to surveillance, circumventing federal statutes and even the constitution itself, so long as there is some connection to terrorism. According to William Binney, a former employee of the NSA, “The individual liberties preserved in the US Constitution were no longer a consideration [at the NSA].” In particular, this often meant that the fourth amendment to the Bill of Rights – “The right of the people to be secure in their persons […] and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated […] but upon probable cause” – simply did not matter to the NSA. To them, the probable cause was that terrorism merely existed. So, on Oct. 4, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an order beginning the NSA’s massive domestic spying program, allowing them to spy on U.S. phone calls and emails without a warrant. Later that month, he would sign the Patriot Act, giving the NSA unprecedented freedom to conduct surveillance.
This went on, growing over time in scope, until June 6, 2012, when the program – now named PRISM – was revealed in a leak to the American public. The PRISM program allowed the NSA to tap into Internet provider’s systems, facilitating the mass collecting of user data. At this point, the NSA has vast databases containing the personal information – including conversations – of U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of a number of other countries. All of this information, it was claimed, would only be used in the case of fights against terrorism. This would later turn out to be untrue.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation – a nonprofit organization which focuses on protecting civil liberties in a “digital world” – the data collected by the NSA is used overwhelmingly in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism. At its outset, these unwarranted “sneak-and-peek” searches were used 47 times nationwide between September of 2001 and April of 2003. By 2013, that number had grown to 11,129. Of these 11,129 reports, only 51 (or 0.5%) were used for terrorism-related queries. The overwhelming majority of the others (9,401 requests) were used for narcotics (drug) cases.
In case the implications of this are not clear: since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, the NSA has increased its surveillance activities drastically while justifying its actions with terrorism – something which is almost completely irrelevant to that act’s modern day usage. As a result, the Patriot Act and the data it has allowed the NSA to collect represents a massive violation of the Constitution’s fourth amendment, and our nation’s privacy as a whole.
Moving into 2016, the problem that the NSA poses is only growing. Rather than trying to fix the problem, the Obama administration is now preparing to permit the NSA to share more of its reports with other American intelligence agencies without any privacy protections. The implications of this are explained well by the ACLU of Massachusetts blog Privacy SOS:
“In short, domestic law enforcement officials now have access to huge troves of American communications, obtained without warrants, that they can use to put people in cages. FBI agents don’t need to have any ‘national security’ related reason to plug your name, email address, phone number, or other ‘selector’ into the NSA’s gargantuan data trove. They can simply poke around in your private information in the course of totally routine investigations. And if they find something that suggests, say, involvement in illegal drug activity, they can send that information to local or state police. That means information the NSA collects for purposes of so-called ‘national security’ will be used by police to lock up ordinary Americans for routine crimes.”
The U.S. is approaching a crisis point with the Internet and privacy. Giving the government this kind of power will allow it to target those who oppose it like never before – power which, as history has shown us, all too often leads to ruin. Hopefully the next half of the decade will see some real change in the way the NSA conducts its surveillance. If not, a police state not unlike Orwell’s 1984 may be more possible than we think.