The NSA will not go quietly into that gentle night
According to Reuters, as of last Sunday, the NSA has shut down their invasive phone surveillance program. Under the program, the NSA collected callers’ so-called metadata. Under the system, information such as what numbers people called and when they called were gathered and retained in a government database.
This program’s closing is a positive step towards regaining some of our lost privacy in the last decade or so. Edward Snowden, former NSA employee and (in)famous whistle-blower called it “an important step”. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) went so far as to call it a “milestone”. But both Snowden and the ACLU overestimate the value of liberal democracy.
For one thing, as Fortune reports, the NSA has requested to keep their collections intact until at least late February of 2016. Of course, this is just so these records can be maintained for “data integrity purposes”, according to the White House. But I find it difficult to fathom how someone could believe the NSA or the White House given their track records. The state and its main domestic intelligence arm are basically having a small dispute over how much they should limit themselves.
Meanwhile, as Reuters points out, “A presidential review committee concluded the surveillance regime did not lead to a single clear counter terrorism breakthrough that could be directly attributed to the program.” Think about this: A program that has long been suspected of violating the Constitution and has been disfavored by many, even in the mainstream media, has continued for years, despite this pushback. A program that undoubtedly proved costly for the government and even more so for the American public. A program so culturally stigmatized, that by this point we’ve all made various jokes about how we should hang up lest the NSA decide to listen in.
All of this and the program still gets extended for another few months. But who can be surprised? The government will continue to find excuses to halfheartedly limit its own powers. And if you had the same sort of powers, it seems unlikely you’d do much differently.
Even after February, according to Reuters, there’s pending litigation that has to be resolved before the NSA will completely purge its records. Which means the government will continue its exclusively internal investigation just a little bit longer.
None of this is to say that the government is static or that change can never happen within its own agencies. But we should be skeptical when the government and its agencies decide to “investigate” each other.
Instead of a full and critical investigation, we’re likely to get, at best, small victories. Sure, it’s possible that as a result they’ll engage in less obvious invasions of people’s privacy. But this also means they are more likely to reconfigure their framework, as Fortune points out, than the underlying foundation of domestic surveillance. Because the foundation here ispower and specifically power over the individual. And as we all know, power corrupts and the power the NSA has corrupts absolutely. This goes double for the much larger federal government, with its many subservient organizations and financial power. Financial power derived from unwilling taxpayers which helps the government externalize costs and privatize benefits.
The bottom line is that these types of organizations won’t self-regulate themselves out of existence.
Instead, we have to make them irrelevant.
Whether by encrypting our conversations, using privacy enhancing software like Tor, or even using Mesh Neworking to create our own internet.
In sum, we have the tools at our disposal to create a better world.
One without the NSA and government’s invasiveness.
Let’s start hacking.