Top secret NSA program spying on millions of US citizens

News & Analysis
Top secret NSA program spying on millions of US citizens

The revelations of the US government's massive and indiscriminate surveillance program are absolutely frightening, putting before the public's eyes the breadth of a secret, dragnet spying regime which casts every US citizen as a suspect.

The unearthing of this top secret court order shows that even in a country that prides itself on checks and balances, and is governed by the rule of law, that government and law enforcement agencies operate within a murky legal framework hidden from public scrutiny. Today's news shows that massive survellance can no longer be said to be the realm of authoritarian regimes, and is part of an alarming trend worldwide. What is needed now more than ever are standards that countries must abide by that operate within a human rights legal framework -- standards that set out the scope of and restrictions on permissible surveillance of communications, that require approval by independent judicial authorities, that uphold due process, and that ensure that all surveillance is necessary and proportionate.

It was only last month that the head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, told Reuters that "The great irony is we're the only ones not spying on the American people." The details of the top secret court order show that Americans, and anyone who calls them, are subject to having their privacy rights violated by the US government. The secretive National Security Agency, commonly referred to as 'No Such Agency', is known to spy on global communications, amassing vast stores of information on people around the world, often with the help of friendly foreign agencies. The public revelation is that this agency's extraordinary spying skills to turned against its own citizens.

The White House has stated that they are not listening into the content of the calls, or accessing content. However, if the government can get phone numbers of two parties, unique identifiers like IMSI and IMEI, trunk identifiers, and time and duration of call, all listed within the court order, then the Obama administration's justification of "We don't access content" does not matter. When analysed and processes, communications metadata allow for the creation of a profile of an individuals private life. This information is just as sensitive, if not more so, as the content of our communications.

The White House has defended the program, saying "it is a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats," but what they fail to even mention or recognise is that the government has the duty to protect the privacy rights of their own citizens. Scarier, this court order, which was issued for a 90 day window, appears to be continunially renewed on a rolling basis and sought by communication providers to protect them from damages. If true, Americans are living in a constant state of surveillance, in secret, and with no recourse for having their rights violated.

When the Bush Administration in 2005 defended its programme of spying on communications across borders that may involve US citizens, it also claimed that it was a 'critical tool', and argued that it was legal. The qualification of whether this new revelation is 'legal' is about how we understand the rule of law:  just because a law has been passed and a judge authorises a wide request, this does not make mass surveillance consistent with a democratic society.  Congress has failed to act to prevent this from arising, the judiciary has been complicit, companies have sought only to protect themselves from liability, and now two White House administrations have used this power to conduct mass surveillance.

The US is now setting a new standard for the rest of the world to follow: every act of communication is something that must be monitored. Lest us not forget the international ramifications.  The UK Government is pursuing the ability to get access not only to phone data, but also detailed records of online activities.  The French and Dutch governments are seeking the power to hack individuals' computers, even across borders. European law requires that telephone and internet service providers retain data on their users' activities for up to two years. National monitoring centres are being established across the world enabling real-time monitoring of tens of thousands of simultaneous communications. It's open season on global communications privacy, and as a recent UN report stated, surveillance severely undermines citizens’ ability to enjoy a private life, freely express themselves and enjoy their other fundamental human rights.