Surveillance Gone Bad

Yesterday the Guardian reported on how Russia is preparing for the winter Olympics:

newly installed telephone and internet spying capabilities will give the FSB free rein to intercept any telephony or data traffic and even track the use of sensitive words or phrases mentioned in emails, webchats and on social media

The article goes on to speculate on how these capabilities might be used to target gay rights activists, supporters of opposition politicians, or the commercial secrets of business travallers.

We haven’t had much of that kind of discussion here, because despite how corrupt our government is, we have a sense that it’s not that bad, not like Russia. Our government wouldn’t use the powers of surveillance to target innocent people…

Don’t be so sure. We may have fairly reasonable people in charge of things right now, but that can always change. In our own history, we’ve have these powers abused by Richard Nixon and J Edgar Hoover. Maybe general Alexander has the best intentions and noblest goals as he eliminates privacy. Maybe president Obama is fundamentally a decent person, who would never think to abuse these powers for political ends. But what if we had some less reasonable people in charge? What if a modern-day J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon were running things right now? Who might they target?

I have suggested that the powers of surveillance could easily be used to monitor network behavior indicating positive interest in terrorist groups, research into explosives and online weapons purchases. Assume this is being done.

Who else? A democratic-leaning president might target tea party people. A republican or tea party president might target environmental activists, and Occupy Wall Street types. Either one might decide to target antiwar, climate, environmental, medical marijuana or free speech activists. Journalists are currently in the crosshairs, since they are where the leaks go, and that will only increase. Government employees will be increasingly targeted. Laura Poitras is doing what she is doing right now as a direct result of the government harassing her.

There are considerable risks to a free people from the mere existence of pervasive systems of government surveillance. We will see this as our surveillance technologies spread around the world to governments that will surely abuse them in new and interesting ways. That’s one consequence of our privatized intelligence system. The other is that we now have a huge industry that sees big money in ever-increasing surveillance of Americans. Their products will poison our networks and communications at home and around the world. The justification will be security, the reality will be a lot of companies making a lot of money from a system that still has not received the public debate it deserves.

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