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Why government surveillance won’t protect your data

August 26, 2015, 6:48 PM UTC
Computer hacker silhouette. Blue binary code background. Seattle office.
Photograph by Getty Images

The need to find a balance between privacy and security has become a truism in American media and political rhetoric. Surveillance makes us safer, we’re told, and too much concern with keeping personal lives private would reduce protection against terrorism. Such pie-chart depictions of privacy and security might seem logical, but they’re badly flawed.

Notions of tradeoffs between privacy and security have gained a powerful hold on the public, in the midst of continuing revelations about mass surveillance that routinely violates the Fourth Amendment.

The latest case came in mid-August when a team of journalists from ProPublica and the New York Times produced an in-depth story based on documents supplied by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. The front-page article revealed that the NSA’s “ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T (T).”

New facts in the story were stunning — or at least should have been. But the impacts of such reporting have diminished, largely due to the prevalence of zero-sum concepts that privacy and security are at odds with each other.

No matter how startling, each new revelation about the extent of snooping by the NSA is apt to be deflected by assumptions that Uncle Sam must sometimes morph into a digital Big Brother in order to protect us.

But far from being legalistic antiques that have outlived their usefulness in our modern era of terrorism, the Fourth Amendment’s requirements for “probable cause” and specificity of warrants are not only matters of bedrock constitutional principle. They also enhance our security.

Adherence to the Fourth Amendment — with its insistence on targeted rather than general warrants — actually provides much better protection against terrorism than aiming the government’s digital blunderbuss at millions of people.

Former FBI special agent Coleen Rowley, who was a Time magazine “Person of the Year” in the wake of 9/11, points out that mass surveillance makes preventing terrorism and catching bad guys less — not more — likely.

If locating terrorist plotters is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, Rowley insists, the last thing we should do is keep adding more hay. Yet that’s what the NSA’s “collect it all” policies have amounted to.

“As an FBI whistleblower and witness for several U.S. official inquiries into 9/11 intelligence failures,” Rowley wrote in The Guardian in November. “I fear that terrorists will succeed in carrying out future attacks — not despite the massive collect-it-all, dragnet approach to intelligence implemented since 9/11, but because of it. This approach has made terrorist activity more difficult to spot and prevent.”

Rowley explains: “The CIA had only about 16 names on its terrorist watch list back in September 2001 and probably most were justified, but there’s no way the million names reportedly now on the ‘terrorist identities datamart environment’ list can be very accurate. The decision to elevate quantity over quality did nothing to increase accuracy, unblock intelligence stovepipes or prevent terrorist attacks.”

In other words, as haystacks from mass surveillance keep getting bigger, the needles of real terrorists get harder to find. The problem continues to worsen as Congress approves huge surveillance budgets.

If Rowley is correct (and I think she is), why would the U.S. government be spending so much money to widen surveillance that not only undermines the Fourth Amendment but also damages rather than strengthens the capacity of “national security” agencies to protect us?

The answer, as NSA whistleblowers William Binney, Thomas Drake and Kirk Wiebe have told me, is as familiar as it is disturbing: Follow the money. Very big money.

An estimated 70% of the NSA’s $10.8 billion budget is going to private firms that I think are all too eager to boost their profits at the expense of taxpayers and civil liberties. NSA spending, in turn, amounts to scarcely one-fifth of the overall National Security Program budget of $52.6 billion, which also covers the Central Intelligence Agency and less-known agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office.

As a matter of routine, large numbers of employees at such federal agencies move on to much more lucrative endeavors. Investigative journalist Tim Shorrock calls the process “a joint venture of government officials and private-sector opportunists with massive power and zero accountability.”

As Shorrock reported in May in The Nation, since this century began, “thousands of former high-ranking intelligence officials and operatives have left their government posts and taken up senior positions at military contractors, consultancies, law firms, and private-equity firms. In their new jobs, they replicate what they did in government — often for the same agencies they left. But this time, their mission is strictly for-profit.”

There’s no doubt that the surveillance business is booming. The U.S. government’s expansive programs for spying now monitor its own citizens as never before. It’s all in the name of protecting the American people. But democracy and security will be the losers.

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, coordinator of ExposeFacts and cofounder of He is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.