In Bluffdale, Utah construction is currently underway on a huge data storage facility, the purpose of which is to store vast amounts of secretly-collected information about American citizens, effectively without their knowledge or consent. The edifice is being developed for the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s largest government intelligence organisation.
The development of the massive Utah complex, estimated to be able to contain, when constructed, a century’s worth of the world’s entire electronic communications, is the latest indication that American civil liberties are endangered in the digital sphere.
According to the respected American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which monitors and litigates against threats to such public freedoms, numerous private firms and government institutions ranging from the FBI to “firemen and emergency medical technicians” are already collecting alarmingly large amounts of information domestically. Such data, they explain “can be used to construct vast dossiers that can be widely shared with a simple mouse-click” with other intelligence institutions.
This is particularly worrying in the context of the “counter-terrorism” section of the 2012 National Defence Authorisation Act.
According to legal experts and newspaper editors among many others, the NDAA allows for the detention without charge or trial of American citizens merely suspected of involvement in terrorist activity. The unlimited holding of suspects in such a way is considered to be a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.The ACLU wrote this year that the law “violates the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments of the US Constitution and most of the Bill of Rights.”
The bill also appears to allow for the “extraordinary rendition” of detained individuals - a highly controversial practice associated with the transfer of detainees to foreign countries for torture.
Further evidence of the grim state of affairs emerged recently, in the form of justice department documents obtained by the ACLU which indicate that a huge increase in warrantless electronic surveillance has occurred in the past two years.
Astonishingly, the material shows that more Americans were spied on in 2010 and 2011 than in the preceding decade, using “pen register” and “trap and trace” techniques. The latter allow for the monitoring of phone calls and internet activity, and are not protected by the fourth amendment on the basis of legal technicalities.
There’s good reason for the American public to fear the sort of snooping detailed above. The amount of data being collected is so gargantuan that any justification of such activity on the basis that it selectively targets criminals or terrorists simply lacks credibility. According to the Washington Post, every day the NSA “intercepts and stores 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, texts, and other electronic communications”; given that such monitoring activity often takes place secretly, risk of inappropriate surveillance is high.
And it’s not like such things haven’t happened before. Intelligence officials have admitted that the NSA was, in recent years, engaged in the “significant and systemic over-collection” of data in breach of the powers it is granted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 2008 - but the agency refuses to provide the public with details of these violations. That’s hardly an indication of a commitment to accountability.
In addition, a recent senate study of an information-sharing programme used by the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of 9/11 concluded that the operation “improperly collected information about innocent Americans”.
The spy who quit
William Binney, an ex-NSA operative with three decades worth of experience - who quit over warrantless surveillance programmes that he helped to design for foreign use - has little doubt over what such data gathering schemes are intended for. “The purpose is to monitor what people are doing” he told the New York Times, adding that previous operations were hidden from public knowledge by secrecy legislation because “[the government] wanted to classify the extreme, impeachable crimes that they were committing.”
As I have already argued, similar data collection programmes in the UK should be opposed on the basis that they pave the way for unnecessary state intrusion into our online activities. If one is alarmed about the prospects of excessive digital surveillance at home, America’s expeditious descent into a national security state surely has to be of concern, not least because the precedents currently being set on that side of the Atlantic are very likely to have serious implications here, as they so often do when it comes to intelligence practices.
What’s more, with regard to the NDAA in particular, the precedents set may be globally significant. The ACLU concludes that “the breadth of the NDAA’s detention authority violates international law because it is not limited to people captured in the context of an actual armed conflict as required by the laws of war.” If America has the power to imprison potentially innocent people far from the field of battle, what’s to stop other, far more repressive regimes from doing the same on greater and more brutal scale?