Hold onto your nudes, angry rants, and pretty much all your messages. As if it wasn’t already perilous to share personal information, it’s about to get infinitely less private.
The National Security Agency (NSA) was just granted the power to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before privacy protections come into effect. On Jan 3, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch signed these new rules into law, granting multiple agencies access to “raw signals intelligence information,” after it was approved by James R Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, on Dec 15, 2016.
Previously, NSA analysts were required to sift out information that they judged irrelevant, and withhold names of individuals deemed innocent along with unrelated personal info before passing any data along to other agencies. Now, the sharing of raw surveillance will result in more intelligence officials being able to search through satellite transmissions, phone calls, emails across network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic networks.
Robert S. Litt, the general counsel to Clapper, tried to downplay this move from the outgoing Obama administration. “This is not expanding the substantive ability of law enforcement to get access to signals intelligence,” he claimed, “It is simply widening the aperture for a larger number of analysts, who will be bound by the existing rules.”
These new rules relax the longtime limits on what the NSA can do with the information it gathers, which is largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. Executive Order 12333, enacted by the Ronald Reagan administration and expanded by the George W. Bush administration, serves as the supposedly legal basis for much of the NSA’s surveillance abilities. It allows them to gather information from around the world through phone and internet servers- from sites such as Google- along with entire phone call records and satellite transmissions. In 2014, the Intercept disclosed that the NSA had used Order 12333 as the legal basis for an internal NSA search engine, spanning over 850 billion phone and internet records, monitoring the activity of millions of American citizens.
There’s no fucking way THAT many Americans were a risk to national security. What, are we all a threat? We’re the people who make this country what it is. But now all of these records, along with any new information collected, is available for any intelligence agency’s viewing. They can be granted access if they intend to use the raw data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, or if an American citizen is found to be an agent working for another country. Of course, you can’t prove an American is working for a foreign country without any surveillance, so that’s the catch 22- everyone is monitored, whether they’re involved in criminal activity or not. In other words, intelligence agencies will use the raw data to spy on foreign individuals across the globe and American citizens within our country.
Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees with the dangers presented with these new rules.
“Rather than dramatically expanding government access to so much personal data, we need much stronger rules to protect the privacy of Americans,” Toomey said. “Seventeen different government agencies shouldn’t be rooting through Americans’ emails with family members, friends and colleagues, all without ever obtaining a warrant.”
In an attempt to present some kind of accountability, the NSA claims it will only grant agencies access to the unfiltered information “it deems reasonable after consideration factors like whether large amounts of Americans’ private information might be included and, if so, how damaging and embarrassing it would be if that information were ‘improperly used or disclosed.’”
That’s a pretty quote, isn’t it? Because that’s all it is: words. This will do nothing. Given the sheer amount of personal information from the millions of people already surveyed, it’s unlikely that the NSA will deny access to the already amassed records. In fact, back in May 2016, Reuters reported that the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) had not denied a single request in 2015 for electronic surveillance orders granted for foreign intelligence purposes. With 1,457 requests on behalf of the NSA and FBI in 2015, and 1,379 applications from 2014, the FISC apparently agreed with every case needing surveillance. The memo also stated that 48,642 national security letter (NSL) requests were made in 2015 by the FBI and the DEA. NSLs are a type of subpoena authorities use to compel internet and telecommunication firms to hand over customer data such as web browsing history, email addresses, and subscriber information. These NSLs are almost always accompanied by open-ended gag orders issued by the DOJ barring companies from disclosing the demands for customer data.
Created in 1979 to oversee Department of Justice (DOJ) requests for surveillance warrants, the FISC declined just 11 of more than 33,900 requests made by the department over 33 years. The FISC court only has to hear evidence for the surveillance applications- presented solely by the DOJ- and does not have to release its opinions or any information about these hearings. At a denial rate of 0.03%, it makes you question whether there’s any judicial oversight happening at all.
We’re not even done outlining this either. According to the New York Times, “[U]nder the new rules, if analysts stumble across evidence that an American has committed any crime, they will send it to the Justice Department.” Translation: information collected without a warrant or formal court involvement- allegedly for foreign intelligence purposes with little to no privacy protections- can be accessed, raw and unfiltered, by any intelligence agency and passed along to domestic law enforcement agencies to prosecute Americans.
I can hear the commentators already. If you didn’t do anything wrong, what do you have to hide? But if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re obviously missing the bigger picture here. The NSA’s massive database inevitably includes vast amounts of any American’s communications- collected when they speak to people overseas, when they go abroad themselves, or even if their domestic communications are simply routed abroad. No one denies that the NSA needs surveillance powers in order to properly evaluate national security threats, but the point of previous limitations was to screen and remove unrelated and identifying personal information before passing that data along. With these new stipulations, law enforcement could, with very little effort, search Americans’ private information for evidence of anything that might be legally questionable without going to a judge. Privacy activists have been protesting this very issue, with some media calling this the “backdoor search loophole.”
So much for innocent until proven guilty. Essentially, any agency that has responsibilities for prosecuting domestic crimes, regulating financial policy, and enforcing immigration laws now has access to a wealth of personal information that could be misused. This is another step in the attack against our democratic rights, creating an opportunity for an already flawed justice system to start targeting and imprisoning American citizens without allowing them proper legal rights. This is a turn towards a more authoritarian form of rule. I hate to bring up such a cliche example, but it seems like we’re truly treading the path towards a real Big Brother scenario. And with Trump’s inauguration taking place this week, who has already demonstrated his lack of concern towards law and protecting American populations, this mass state spying tool is incredibly dangerous. Now that its powers have been expanded, privacy will be almost non-existent. This can only spell catastrophe.