America’s vast domestic surveillance regime is an affront to liberty. The example should be resisted

Security Agencies in the United States are collecting too much digital data on citizens


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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins