NSA whistleblower dispels popular cop-out argument

It’s a familiar argument in questions of privacy and government surveillance: “I’ve got nothing to hide, and therefore nothing to fear.” After all, what would government spooks want with the good citizens who follow the law and pay their taxes, right?


Revelations of the NSA’s communications monitoring abilities, which appear to have been in place since at least 9/11, have confirmed what many of us have feared: that everything we say, over almost any medium, can be used against us – and here’s the worst part: in most cases we won’t even know about it.

It reminds me of an old joke, which if memory serves me correctly was about living in Soviet Russia with the KGB: if you ever lose your keys, simply shout out a threat to kill Comrade Lenin. A KGB agent will be over shortly to help you find them.

Have things gotten this bad? Of course not; no one in the world has the resources or manpower – yet – to actively tap everything we do and say, over every communications medium. What the NSA has demonstrated, however, is that it doesn’t need to.

Instead of recording all our calls and e-mails, it catalogs the data that it can analyze – metadata, as ex-NSA-analyst Russell Tice put it – and runs all sorts of analytics to determine its character. This metadata contains information on things like the sender, the recipient, the length of call, and location data like cell-tower or IP address. Metadata doesn’t contain the actual content, because it doesn’t need to.

What the NSA does record is analyzed according to patterns it regards to be suspicious. As an example, Mr. Tice described a “hypothetical” scenario: if the NSA determines that terrorists frequently make brief phone calls, then their system might automatically flag all short calls – such as someone ordering a pizza – as worthy of further investigation.

Think about that for a minute: if your actions – not even what you actually say – fit a pre-determined list of profiles (of which you have no access to) then you are liable to be red-flagged to a place where the contents of your communications are recorded.  Of course, you  won’t know whether this happened. Neither will you know when this red flag ever amounts to anything, such as – to use Mr. Tice’s example – the addition of your name to a TSA no-fly list.

Now, let’s think about the flipside for a minute: if on the phone you and a friend discussed plans for blowing up a building, but your call didn’t fit the NSA’s terrorist profile, your call escapes government notice.

Another possibility is so-called “guilt by association”: you may not know or associate with someone the government considers suspicious, but what about your friends? Do any of them have a drug habit? Do they have a criminal record? Do they align themselves with advocacy groups of any kind? What about their friends? Yes? No? Can you truly know for sure?

Thanks to the Internet’s global nature, I have friends around the world. Some of them lived or currently live in places like Bahrain and Syria. When we chat, we talk shop, about cultural absurdities, and about our countries’ respective politics. Does that make me a terrorist?

Look at President Obama’s election campaign: Opponents used Obama’s prior association with Weather Underground member William Ayers to discredit his campaign, suggest a weakness in his patriotism, and introduce into the public mind that he carried dangerous views. How hard is it for the NSA to draw similar conclusions? How many degrees of separation do they consider worthy of their attention?

Again, we don’t know. Everything is classified for reasons that, taken at face value, appear to be good ones. Don’t give the terrorists access to our tactics, right?

The dark side of this is that innocent citizens, who may and for whatever reason be flagged as suspicious, have little-to-no recourse. Taken to extremes, in the future a red flag could ruin someone’s life. More practically, it could mean little nuisances like an extra-special baggage search here, or, more painfully, a denied passport or visa.

This is why you must be concerned, even if you have nothing to hide. Terrorists or not, the government has no business sticking its nose into the private affairs of its citizens, regardless of whether or not it can accurately tell the difference between good and evil – and given the current situation the margin of error is simply way too large. We know this, our guardians know this, and even the agencies themselves know this fact – and if Mr. Tice is to be believed then the NSA is hiding this even from the oversight that it answers to.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. We build such wonderful things: the internet, global communications, easy access to countries halfway across the globe – and yet we refuse to call the guardians of those things to task when they silently work against us.

Indeed, you’ve got nothing to hide – so what?

"A lot of people pay zero for the cellphone ... That's what it's worth." -- Apple Chief Operating Officer Timothy Cook

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