Could the heads of our spy agencies exempt theeselves from their own surveillance?

The self-created end of privacy in the United States was brought about as much by technology as desire. Those who claim there is little new here — the government read the mail of and wiretapped the calls and conversations of Americans under COINTELPROfrom 1956 to at least 1971 – do not understand the impact of technology.

Technology now being employed by the NSA and others inside the U.S. has never before existed, in scale, scope or sheer efficiency. Size matters. We are the first people in history to deal with this threat to privacy. Avoiding even the majority of encroaching digitalization essentially means withdrawing from society.

The spying and compiling of information on innocent Americans by J. Edgar Hoover’s low-tech FBI is well-known; files, recordings and photos secretly obtained exposed the lives of civil rights leaders, popular musicians and antiwar protesters. You will likely think of additional examples, or they’ll be in the next batch of Snowden documents. However, four key advances in tech have changed everything between J. Edgar Hoover’s time and J. Edgar Holder’s:

More Information from Increasingly Digital Lives

More and more of Americans’ lives are now digital than ever before, from banking to travel to cell phones to social media.

Where once the NSA was limited to traditional notions of communication, the written and spoken word, it is now known that images, photos and video are being collected and subject to facial recognition technology that automatically matches those to the traditional communications also collected, literally putting a face to a name. Facial recognition tech, even as employed today at casinos, can pick out a known person from a crowd. It can account for age, changes in facial hair, glasses, hats and the like.

An off-shoot of facial recognition is the broad category of biometrics, the use of traits unique to a person, to identify someone. These can be anything from the prosaic fingerprint to cutting-edge DNA records and iris scans. This is also big business, and now has its own trade association in Washington, DC. One of the world’s largest (known) collections of biometric data is held by the Department of State. As of December 2009, its Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) contained over 75 million photographs of Americans and foreigners and has a current growth rate of approximately 35,000 records per day. CCD also collects the fingerprints of all foreigners issued visas.

Collect it All, Store it Forever

NSA and others have created powerful tools that can gather and store this data, with the promise of gathering and storing everything. Data storage is cheap and more constrained today by the availability of electricity and water to cool the electronics than anything else. The possibility of quantum storage in the near future only suggests holding more data longer will be easier and cheaper. How much? NSA whistleblower Bill Binney stated in a lecture that the 80th FISA court general warrant of 2013 alone required Verizon to turn over an unknown number of records on 100 million people.

Aggregate What You Collect

Where once data was kept in paper files stuffed into cabinets in isolated offices, then in digital form by a variety of agencies in multiple formats, technology today permits combined mega-databases, where information from license plate readers, wiretaps and library book choices can be aggregated and easily shared. Basically everything about a person, gathered worldwide by various agencies and means, can be easily put into a single “file.”

Interesting side point: NSA analysts snoop into old girlfriends’ and boyfriends’ data so frequently that it has its own internal slang term: Love-INT (INT being “intelligence.”)

Eliminate the Human Link– Analysis

Emerging technologies grow more and grow capable of analyzing this Big Data. Some are even available to the public, off-the-shelf, such as IBM’s Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness (NORA, also known as IBM Relationship Resolution) software. NORA scans multiple databases (for example, geolocation info from license plate readers and social media friends) and recognizes relationships that may not be obvious at first glance. More importantly, it is fast and automated.

The Secret Service is seeking contractors to create new software to monitor social media. One key feature sought is the “Ability to detect sarcasm and false positives.” The ever-growing amount of social media content being gathered defies human monitoring. The new software would sort potential serious threat Tweets such “I will kill the president in Dallas tomorrow” from online rants like “IMHO Obama sux, somebody should do something bout dat. LOL” The Secret Service adds that the ability to detect sarcasm and false positives is just one of 18 things they scan for in social media.

Machine tools such as NORA are removing the last hurdle to the NSA knowing nearly everything, the need for trained humans in vast numbers to match the vast data haul, to “connect the dots.” In addition to efficiency, machines offer the NSA other advantages. They don’t have consciences, and they don’t blow the whistle.

BONUS: An interesting side point to the pervasiveness of surveillance: the possibility of a new elite, those who through their relationship with the government or through enormous expenditures on personal countermeasures, can maintain privacy. It seems likely that, for example, the head of the NSA could exempt himself from his organization’s own surveillance (as David Petraeus learned, the head of the CIA clearly enjoys no such exemption.) As celebrities buy private islands and use private jets to live apart from the real world, they may be able to purchase technology to enjoy more privacy than the rest of us. A new 1%.
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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from from Amazon.

Photo by Boring Lovechild under Creative Commons license