Doug Petersen Writer, Technologist, Artist and Uneasy Citizen of Oceania

18Jan/141

Quiz: Mass Surveillance

Nick Petersen liked this post

What data supports a case for the continued surveillance of American citizens? NSA past performance? The NSA claims their surveillance programs are in place to protect American citizens. So, how effective have those programs been? Answering that question required some patience but the government numbers have been published. Do you know what they are? Here's a quiz:

How many terrorist plots have been foiled by NSA mass surveillance programs?

A. 0 or 1
B. 2 to 13
C. 14 to 53
D. 54 or More

The number of terrorist plots the NSA claims to have foiled has, under increasing scrutiny, shrunk from wildly optimisitic generalizations in the hundreds to 54 to 13 to 2 and now to 1. That's right, one. The poster-child for NSA operational success is the result of preventing a San Diego man from sending $8,500 to a Somali militant group. That lone success is the return taxpayers have received on NSA mass surveillance. Yet citizens are still being asked to believe that NSA surveillance is vital to their security. That contention is still being advocated despite the fact the NSA has delivered no real value.

What is not disputed is the staggering cost of NSA surveillance programs--even if you count only those costs that are made public. But keep in mind that costs do not only come in the form of taxpayer dollars. There are other ways we should be measuring cost. In carrying out surveillance programs, the NSA has managed to violate the privacy of citizens, break numerous laws, falsely testify before Congress, undermine Internet security standards, compromise American technology sales abroad, and damage trust between the U.S. and allies. That's the short list.

With the curtain drawn back, the NSA now only claims that they "may" have foiled one terrorist attack. But, come on! You can't even call that an attack with a straight face. How about a terrorist-related act? What the NSA ostensibly "foiled" was a fund transfer. And the paltry amount of that transfer might buy a few small arms or, if the government is involved, maybe a toilet seat or a hammer. Regardless, it's not the kind of result that should prompt Americans to shout, "Where do we sign up to surrender what's left of our privacy rights?"

The NSA and others, in advance of Obama's announcement on the recommendations of his task force, lobbied hard to retain their mass surveillance powers. The NSA’s top civilian official, Deputy Director John C. Inglis, described those powers as an insurance policy against future acts of terrorism. It could, however, be more accurately labeled NSA fear-mongering, obfuscation, and lies because no reasonable case for past or future mass surveillance of citizens has been made.

Obama's announcement on NSA surveillance powers falls short of any meaningful privacy protection for citizens. The centerpiece of the President's proposal is to require a judicial process before "accessing" collected data which implies the following:

1. Data on virtually every citizen will continue to be "collected"
2. Existing laws requiring search warrants will continue to be ignored
3. Less-than-transparent judicial processes intended for non-domestic surveillance will continue to be used domestically

The President has effectively blessed the NSA's surveillance practices by largely ignoring the 46 recommendations made by the task force he empaneled to weigh national security concerns against civil liberties. But the President has not only ignored the task force in his deliberations, if there actually were deliberations, but he has also ignored the constitution and the rights of citizens.

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  1. Once again, I enjoyed reading your very well written post. It was very interesting to read about the NSA terrorist plot foil performance program effectiveness or as reality states the lack of!!!! As I read this article, the lyrics for your spoken word “Dangerous Citizen” came strongly to my mind with the words of Thomas Jefferson….”The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first”


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