prev next

Keep yourselfup to date

News & Blog Kevin Kelly: The Dangers of Unfettered Surveillance


Kevin Kelly: The Dangers of Unfettered Surveillance

kevinkellyphotoAfter several months of revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, two court rulings- one challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and the other upholding it- and a series of recommendations from a panel of experts, President Obama recently proposed several “reforms” to the agency that is tasked with keeping Americans safe.

Contrary to the President’s insistence that the suggested NSA amendments are for the purpose of modification and improvement, they seem largely designed to keep the agency’s current operations intact. As journalist Glenn Greenwald explained in an editorial for The Guardian, most of the changes suggested by the Commander in Chief have been largely cosmetic: “…They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.”

Without true reform and the establishment of a proper system of checks and balances for the NSA, the very agency tasked with protecting the American way of life may inadvertently bring about its demise. The unchallenged authority and scale of the NSA program has overwhelming potential for abuse.

One need not look back far to know what happens when intelligence agencies are left to their own devices. Henry Wallace, Vice President to Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce during the Truman Administration, was placed under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for the purpose of searching for “pro-communist or Soviet ties.” Although Wallace was never found to be a communist, this did not prevent the FBI from continuing its pursuit.

In the 1960’s, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, believing that Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement contained communist elements, placed him under intense surveillance. The Bureau specifically highlighted his association with Stanley Levison, a New York lawyer involved with the Communist Party USA. Although Levison had severed all ties with the Party in 1963, FBI agents remained undeterred from the continued scrutiny of the civil rights leader. In addition to King’s alleged associations with communists, it was becoming clear that the FBI found his rhetoric on the Vietnam War troubling. The FBI’s file on King stated: “he gets more cheers in Negro colleges when he opposes the war in Vietnam than he does when he talks about rights. He says they go wild about Viet Nam issue.” Hoover’s efforts to destroy King was taken to new extremes when agents from the FBI sent an anonymous letter to the civil rights icon implying that he should kill himself.

The current model of the National Security Agency is, according to journalist James Bamford: “… eerily similar to the FBI’s operations under J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to ‘neutralize’ their targets.”

Already, evidence of potential for abuse came through the revelation of an NSA program designed to discredit future Jihadist radicals by monitoring the sexually explicit material they view online. Edward Snowden has also alluded to the dangers of programs such as these in a letter he wrote to the citizens of Brazil: “…They even keep track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography, in case they need to damage their target’s reputation.”

The anemic reforms proposed by Obama will not prevent spying technology from being potentially used for untoward purposes, as witnessed under Hoover’s FBI.  Former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke explained to the President himself the dangers of America’s surveillance apparatus possesses if it fell into the wrong leader’s hands: “The point we made to him was, ‘We’re not really concerned about you, Barack, but God forbid some other guy’s in the office five years from now and there’s another 9/11’…” Recently, lack of accountability at the NSA forced Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to submit a letter to NSA Director Keith Alexander asking: “Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?”

Potential abuse of NSA programs lies not only with the government and its enemies, but with self-serving individuals and organizations, as well.  Who is to store this incredible amount of data compiled by the NSA, and by what means is it to be secured?  Within days of the President’s NSA reform speech, it was revealed that the US government was accusing USIS, its largest security background check contractor, of filing more than 660,000 flawed reports.  Is it so very unbelievable to think that, at some point, the data collected and archived by the NSA will become compromised?  What information could be more valuable to multinational corporations which already spend millions to learn of our habits and preferences?  How priceless would be data on one’s political opponent or rival for a promotion?  Further, might technology exist to alter this data in order to discredit or lend credit to a person or cause? The possibilities for misuse of such vast quantities of secretive intelligence are infinite; surprisingly, this topic does not seem to warrant serious consideration during “reform” efforts.

President Obama’s recent speech is disarmament of the most dangerous sort- a pre-emptive strike designed to quell a public awakening to the idea that we all have “skin in this game” and deserve a reasonable mix of protection and accountability. Obama’s proposed band-aid NSA reforms distract from the more pertinent questions of program constitutionality, the overwhelming possibility of present and future abuse of power by the NSA, the increasing probability of the misuse of archived NSA intelligence, and the exploration of alternative, less-intrusive means of protecting American interests. We must resist the temptation to accept the President’s reforms as an absolute solution and demand that his speech serve only as the beginning of a very necessary conversation.

In the words of the surveilled Henry Wallace in a 1947 speech referring to the FBI which was “conducting a campaign of terror against liberal government employees…These actions are being kept quiet. We must demand an end to this silent reign of terror.”

Kevin Kelly is currently a columnist for The Washington Times Community Section and a college student majoring in History and Political Science.  Follow him on Twitter @kevin_remnant.

Untold History does not subscribe to a specific partisan agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary on current events.