The revelations concerning the scope of the government's data collection practices perhaps shouldn't be as surprising as they are likely to be for most people. I've always had misgivings about the Patriot Act because it was evident from the start that it would give the government the ability to do essentially whatever it wants. So when we learn the following from the Washington Post, should we be surprised?
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.Now, I currently use 7 of those 9 providers (get outta here, AOL) and chances are good you use many of them as well. I don't suspect the gubmint will learn anything useful from my YouTube usage, although those episodes of "Hogan's Heroes" and "Get Smart" that I watched with Fearless Maria the other night might raise some suspicions. Still, it's difficult to see why much of the information is being collected.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
What bothers me more is this -- you and I may not have any secrets, but the gubmint certainly does:
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.Emphasis mine. The broad point of this morning's revelations is pretty simple -- we all stand naked in the public square, but our government does not. It's not a Republican/Democrat issue, either, since the programs began under the Bush administration and have continued apace under Obama. If there's a political point to be scored here, it's that there really aren't too many consistent civil libertarians on the field these days, and that the Fourth Amendment is pretty close to a dead letter, for this and other reasons. We're overdue for a national conversation about that sort of thing.