Blanket Surveillance. Total Secrecy. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Imagine that one day you came home to find a shiny little bubble of one-way glass in an upper corner of every single room, and a notice left on your kitchen table: “As required by the Safe Society Act, we have installed remotely controlled cameras throughout your home. (Also your office.) But don’t worry! They’ll probably only be activated if the government believes that a non-US citizen might have entered this building.” Would that give you warm fuzzy feelings of safety and security?

I ask because that’s a pretty good metaphor for what happened this week. I refer of course to PRISM. You may have noticed the flurry of reports followed by aflurry of denials regarding the “top-secret National Security Administration data-mining program that taps directly into the Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple servers among others.”

Meanwhile, with (surprisingly) much less furore, the Wall Street Journal took the previous revelation that the NSA “is secretly collecting phone record information for all U.S. calls on the Verizon network,” and expanded it considerably:

The National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency’s activities.

At first nobody knew what PRISM was. Both Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg personally and strongly denied the initial allegations, and the Washington Postbacked away from its initial claim that the tech companies “participate knowingly.” So who could say what was really going on, given the doublespeak that the NSA uses when discussing surveillance, and the weird way that Page, Zuck, and every other accused tech company (except, oddly, Microsoft) all kept chanting the strange mantra “no direct access” in their denials?

The New York Times, apparently. Hats off to them, and to Twitter; and shame on all the PRISM companies. The NYT’s report on PRISM — which you should all click through to and read — says that:

Twitter declined to make it easier for the government. But other companies were more compliant… The companies were legally required to share the data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act… they are prohibited by law from discussing the content of FISA requests or even acknowledging their existence… FISA orders can range from inquiries about specific people to a broad sweep for intelligence, like logs of certain search terms… employees whose job it is to comply with FISA requests are not allowed to discuss the details even with others at the company…

Which is appalling enough right there: but let’s not lose sight of the even bigger and uglier picture, one which includes the WSJ’s claims. Going back to my cameras-in-the-home metaphor, until this week we all knew that the government could break in and install cameras in every home if they wanted to … but now we know they’ve actually done it. …

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