Why NSA surveillance matters in a world with little privacy

nsaemailThis week has brought with it yet another discovery about the extent of the NSA's dragnet surveillance. On Monday, the Washington Post published a series of secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden, revealing that the NSA has been collecting millions of e-mail and instant messaging contact lists from users all over the world. The public can now clearly see that the NSA has extensive and largely unencumbered access to information about our lives and use of technology: who we call and when we call them, what websites we visit, who we e-mail and chat with online, and the content of our online communications.

In the world we live in today, we are increasingly exposed -- and exposing ourselves-- online. Many people do not think twice about the information we offer up. Most of our activity online is tracked one way or another by companies like Google, which analyze the content of e-mails to target ads, and advertisers that gather information about our actions both on and off-line to profile us as consumers. So why does it matter that the government is tracking our digital lives when myriad other companies and firms are already gathering similar information about us?

The lack of personal privacy from companies and advertisers is certainly concerning, and there are great resources out there about how to protect your information as much as possible. It is also important to note that companies collude with the government in supplying user data, so these two types of information-gathering cannot be entirely separated. Nonetheless, when it comes to the government's surveillance strategies, the consequences are particularly dangerous for the rule of law, individuals' lives, and even national security.

In conducting unwarranted dragnet surveillance, the NSA automatically treats all Americans as suspect and proceeds to search and seize information about them without probable cause. Such practices violate the First and Fourth Amendments and have been implemented with little oversight from Congress. The NSA has created a system in which it can disregard constitutional rights and evade accountability. The agency probably could have continued doing so indefinitely if not for this summer's massive leak.

When government agencies like the NSA or the FBI obtain personal information about communications and online activity, they can make arbitrary or discriminatory decisions about the threats individuals pose without any evidence of a crime. For example, the Washington Post describes what the NSA can do with contact lists:

Taken together, the data would enable the NSA, if permitted, to draw detailed maps of a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political and religious connections. The picture can also be misleading, creating false “associations” with ex-spouses or people with whom an account holder has had no contact in many years.

Based on that information, the government could designate someone as a threat because of their religious background or political activities, flagging them for heightened surveillance or placing them on a no-fly list. Numerous individuals have already received National Security Letters or subpoenas compelling them to provide further information about their first amendment protected activities (or the activities of other people). This access also allows the government to monitor the communications of journalists and the identities of their sources, which could be used for prosecution 

Gathering, analyzing, and storing all of this information is time-consuming and actually impedes the government's ability to identify and thwart real threats. The documents released this week indicate that the NSA has too much data to sort through, making it difficult to find key information or follow through on a given target. Kevin Gosztola from Firedoglake writes,

This “hoarding complex” actually increases the likelihood that America will be attacked by terrorists. Six terrorist attacks have occurred by people whom the FBI or CIA had previously identified... The sheer amount of data overwhelmed analysts and they failed to connect the dots.

The NSA's surveillance cannot be justified as necessary for national security nor can it be dismissed as merely another example of the lack of online privacy. Tracking and storing information about our online activities makes us vulnerable to further violations of our rights and ultimately distracts intelligence organizations from pursuing threats and keeping us safe.

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