Data Implies Its Misuse

NSASo what are you wearing? Nothing?! You dirty girl! Wait! Is this online? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter given that everything I say or write is taken down—just in case it is ever necessary to use to convict me of a parking violation. I don’t want to get too conspiratorial, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the government had special computers to figure out what I’m thinking. And given this, the NSA can stop listening now because it, unlike my readers, already knows what I’m going to say.

Recently, I’ve been confronted with a lot of people telling me that they don’t care about government surveillance programs because, “I don’t have anything to hide.” This seems like a strange response to me. First, you all may not have anything to hide, but I do. I am working on of a high tech project that we are concerned will become known before we go public. And it is especially the kind of computer hackers who the NSA employs that we don’t want finding out about our work. Second, even if you don’t think you have anything to hide, you are wrong. You don’t want your social security number known. You don’t want your medical records know. You don’t want recordings of you on the toilet released on the internet. And finally, even if you personally have nothing to hide, there are lots of people who make your life better who do have things to hide. The most obvious example is the way that government agencies have gone after peace activists. Robust debate and dissent are critical to having a democracy.

Yesterday, Bart Gellman broke a big story over at the Washington Post, NSA Broke Privacy Rules Thousands of Times Per Year, Audit Finds. When I read that headline, I laughed out loud. Of course! And this is just what the NSA finds using their own screwed up idea of privacy.

Consider that in the first quarter of 2012, the NSA violated FISA 195 times. This is big news because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provides us with very few protections. To give you some idea of this, the FISA court is more or less a rubber stamp for law enforcement: anything they want, they get. You doubt me? As I wrote in February:

Funny thing about the FISA courts. The government has made 38,093 requests from 1979 through 2011. In that time, the FISA courts have denied—Wait for it!—just 11 requests. In fact, before 2003, they never denied a request.

Almost the first thing that Edward Snowden said publicly was that from his terminal at work, he could spy on anyone. Many people in the media and politics claimed that this was untrue, but it, like everything else he’s said, has turned out to be true. This most recent revelation ought to concern all those people who think that the government would never misuse the data they collect. Information is power. And currently, the NSA is collecting all the information they can just because they can. Such information does not sit idle for long. And there is an entropy problem: it tends to get mixed and ends up in places you would never predict.

Think about Edward Snowden. The people who claim that he is a villain and that we have nothing to worry about regarding the NSA are being inconsistent. It is not remotely possible that he was the only person who had access to that data that has or will use it in a way that we don’t approve of. And Obama’s idea of limiting the number of people who have access to the data will not fix the problem.

But this kind of misbehavior by people at the NSA, CIA, FBI, and the dozens of other “law enforcement” organizations isn’t even at issue in this most recent revelation. This one is just about the fact that the NSA having data about us means that they will misuse it. There is no need to even discuss the many nefarious aspects of the agency. The existence of the data implies its misuse. If we are going to address this problem, we must do it on the front side—on the collection side. After the data are collected, the battle is lost.

Now what was that you were wearing, you dirty girl?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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