Who Watches The Watchmen?

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In honor of the Fourth of July, let’s talk a little about how horrifically paranoid and counterproductive the US government has become. And I’m not even talking about Congress! Instead I mean our old friend the No Such Agency, who, it turns out, have been singling out for special treatment anyone who displays any interest in tools which might make the NSA’s life more difficult.

Go on, read the source code yourself, courtesy of a recent report from Jacob Appelbaum1 and co. The message is clear: if you do not accept that the NSA has every right to spy on everything everyone does (oh, and store that data forever to be used against us in the future) then you are the enemy! For sheer horrifyingly hilarious absurdity this reminds me of the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

The White House responded to Ars Technica’s request for comment with a statement which included:

the United States does not collect signals intelligence for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent

Unfortunately that message doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the NSA flunkies who, you know, actually write the code, which includes this awfully revealing comment:

…terms and websites relating to the TAILs (The Amnesic
Incognito Live System) software program, a comsec mechanism advocated by
extremists on extremist forums.

I mean, wow. Comments in the NSA’s source code are clearly aimed at at least marginalizing dissent. If that isn’t a reflection of broader NSA culture, I will eat my hat. And who do people, and especially bureaucrats, marginalize? That’s right: those who they would like to to “suppress and/or burden.”

It’s not just the NSA. The Brazilian government reportedly acquired facial-recognition goggles that can recognize 400 faces per second to police the World Cup. The UK allegedly sports almost 5 million security cameras to watch its population of 70 million. Police forces across the USA would love to start surveilling their territory with drones.

But the sheer scale of the NSA is different. It has collected billions of images for facial recognition — turning your selfies into mug shots. It spies on the entire planet, including, of course, the USA:

A Swiss academic who has information on the German government’s position in the run-up to an international trade negotiation, for instance, could be targeted if the government has determined there is a foreign-intelligence need for that information. If a U.S. college professor e-mails the Swiss professor’s e-mail address or phone number to a colleague, the American’s e-mail could be collected as well, under the program’s court-approved rules.

The fundamental problem is this: they get to watch us; they even get to focus greater attention on any of us who display any interest in not being watched; but we don’t get to watch them at all. When they can’t conceal, they deceive; when they can’t deceive, they obfuscate; and when they can’t even do that, they simply lie through their teeth, even to Congress’s collective face, and later call that “giving the least untruthful answer.”

There’s hope for online privacy. Tor remains remarkably effective; Tails is an interesting innovation; and end-to-end encryption, best exampled by Open Whisper Systems’ TextSecure and RedPhone — which won a Knight Foundation grant and will soon come to iOS — is the future. There may even be hope for greater decentralization of the Internet, so that our information isn’t in the hands of a few huge megacorporate Stacks who can easily by coerced by governments.

But that’s still not enough. I accept that the world needs watchmen, but someone also needs to watch the watchmen, and if you believe Congress, the courts, or the current White House administration are doing a remotely good enough job, then you are dangerously deluded. It is past time for the NSA to be either opened up or split apart — or both.


1Disclaimer/disclosure: Jake’s an old friend of mine.