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Ever since The Patriot Act came into being, the body of liberties citizens cherish have been chipped away by a bloated security state keen to find nourishment. When rights and liberties are deferred to the voyeurs, the monitors, and the paranoid, a bill of rights starts looking like a bill of words, easily sidestepped and disregarded.
A series of outlets have been chasing up the story that the NSA has been keeping track of every single US Verizon customer’s phone activity since the Boston bombing. Complicity with tech companies in this enterprise is also rampant – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple – have been recipients of tapping efforts by the NSA and FBI, something they have been doing since 2007.
More specifically, The Guardian has managed to secure access to records of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about the specifics of Verizon’s networks and government access. In the document, the NSA compels Verizon to hand over “an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The document further states that disclosure of that fact – that the FBI and NSA sought or obtained such “tangible” things under the order – is prohibited except to appropriate authorities. Gagging is de rigueur.
The classified program under which such activities are taking place is called PRISM, which involves the security agencies extracting audio and video chats, photographs, documents, e-mails, and connection logs (The Washington Post, Jun 7). What is troubling about the program is that it was the devil spawn of something equally insidious – the warrantless surveillance of the Bush administration. Given that such behaviour earned the judicial ire of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the new presidency sought other sources to legitimise mass surveillance programs.
As is typical with the Obama administration, the law is something to twist and turn, a matter of rhetorical play rather than substantive realities. Legality is the spice of the new surveillance state. The Protect America Act of 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 were olive branches to the new presidency, affirming that data mining was well on its way to becoming standard practice.
The document which wound its way to The Washington Post reveals the existence of what many have feared – that the government is merrily going about its business of keeping tabs on you in virtually every conceivable way. The document itself features “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, PayTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” The Guardian has similarly obtained access to the 41 PowerPoint slides of the leaked NSA document detailing the PRISM program in all its inglorious intrusiveness.
Corporations from the Silicon Valley set have denied being free with the information of their users when it comes to the spooks and the analysts of the NSA. A spokesman for Apple claimed that the company had “never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers and any agency requesting customer data must get a court order” (The Guardian, Jun 7). Similarly, an emphatic Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook, claimed that, “We do not provide any government organisation with direct access to Facebook servers.”
Being high and mighty about legality, as we know, is not necessarily Facebook’s forte. For years now, the company has been at the forefront of a social media revolution that has one vital pitch: privacy is dead and deeply buried. Despite this, Sullivan is clear that any request for data and information “about specific individuals” is carefully scrutinised within the framework of the law. We can all rest easy that Mark Zuckerberg is not playing second fiddle to the American empire and the security perverts.
Constitutions are often needed to guard against political excess, the conscience of a state when its representatives have ceased to have any. The responses from the Washington elite suggest the anaesthetised state they have fallen into – liberties need to be shredded to protect liberties; legality demands bouts of illegality and so forth. Nothing to be surprised about, claimed Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga). “This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] authority, and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this” (Forbes, Jun 6).
Even more striking of the amoral numbness of such surveillance activities is Chambliss’ remark that “we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information, and its simply what we call ‘meta data’.” Give it a cryptic, functional label, and people are bound to go along with it. That’s if they even know about it.
Senator Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has again made it clear that the mass surveillance of public chatter and communications is entirely appropriate. The Republic is besieged by enemies external and internal. “As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the last seven years.” The message: This is normal. Stop being so wet about it.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org