“We’re getting into Minority Report territory” – recent goings-on in spyland

Edward Snowden: three more years in Russia

So, let’s start with the good news, shall we? Edward Snowden has received a three-year residential permit in Russia. Guess who’s probably rubbing their hands with glee? No, not “the terrorists”. The German government. They can now reconsider inviting Snowden as a witness before their NSA-appreciative-investigative committee (Snowden is allowed to travel) and they no longer need to overexert themselves to do it. Not that they ever did. I know I am putting myself in danger of being burnt at the stake here but perhaps Merkel and her minions should write a thank you note to Vladimir Putin. The German government can carry on pretending to be interested in a genuine investigation into mass surveillance at no great cost to itself. After all, with Snowden now snug in Russia for at least three more years, the annoying asylum question can neatly be swept under the rug. Hurrah, all rejoice!

Of course, there is no reason to feel cheerful about this or to stop demanding that Snowden be granted asylum elsewhere. Although more or less safe, he does remain in a country whose democracy and human rights record is, nicely put, pretty bad. Helping him get out would be the decent thing to do. Also, he should have been showered with offers of help, safe passage, and asylum from the start of course. I stand by my criticism and frustration that – more than a year on – none of that has happened.

I still think our governments are making it too easy for themselves. So sue me. And give me the information I need to truly understand that I am wrong, i.e. that granting Snowden asylum and keeping him safe is an impossibility. I understand that governments would rather avoid the cost (diplomatic and economic) of doing that but what I want to know: can they really not do it? If granting Snowden asylum is impossible, then we need to worry about sovereignty and the balance of power in the world (which, given recent events, we should be doing anyway). If it is possible but governments are taking the easy way out, if they base their decisions on avoiding the uncomfortable, then how far are they prepared to compromise the rights and liberties others have fought for in the past?

Let there be Snowdens

But okay, fair enough. I wasn’t going to launch into another tirade on asylum and the lacklustre approach of our governments to their NSA-investigations.

Instead, let’s have some more good news: we may have another Snowden. It seems that the Intercept’s recent article on “Barack Obama’s Secret Terrorist-Tracking System” is based on information not provided by Edward Snowden. So far, we do not know who the new leak is and perhaps we will never find out. We should not speculate. As Matthew Phelan points out and Edward Snowden has insisted countless times, the leaker shouldn’t be the story. Now, as far as Snowden is concerned, I have never quite agreed. His treatment by the powers that be is very much a story – and a very sad one at that.

However, in the case of this new leaker, people who demand that rather than to speculate on their identity we take a close look at what they have revealed are right.

A database of terrorist suspects – with no link to terrorism

Which is where the bad news starts. Because the Intercept’s article based on the documents provided by the new leak are quite outrageous:

Nearly half of the people on the U.S. government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects, write Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux, are not connected to any known terrorist group.

So, who are these people then, if not terrorists? Seeing as all this mass surveillance is allegedly necessary to fight some all-encompassing war on terror? Well, the short answer is: they simply aren’t terrorists. In fact, it’s pretty easy to end up on such a list, as the Intercept reported previously, and pretty difficult to get off again:

Because the government tracks “suspected terrorists” as well as “known terrorists,” individuals can be watchlisted if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist, or if they are suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism activity.

Eh? Yes, I am confused too. Basically, you can end up on a list if someone suspects you of being a suspect – i.e. someone thinks (but doesn’t know) that you may perhaps be a terrorist, or if someone things that you know a terrorist or are related to one, or simply if an official with the unilateral power (i.e. that power is vested in one person only rather than a couple – consider what that means for oversight) to place you on such a list thinks you may be a suspect. Sound a bit arbitrary? That’s because it is.

My favourite fact: dead people can end up on watchlists too – one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to get off the lists again: death – let alone a jury – can’t erase reasonable suspicion:

conviction in U.S. courts requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas watchlisting requires only a reasonable suspicion. Once suspicion is raised, even a jury’s verdict cannot erase it.

So you get on the list by suspicion but then need to prove that suspicion wrong beyond a reasonable doubt. Which gets more difficult if the government can refuse to tell you that – or why – you are on a list.

Perhaps it’s this apparent absurdity that has prompted

the Obama and Bush Administrations [to] fiercely resist[…] disclosing the criteria for placing names on the databases—though the guidelines are officially labeled as unclassified. In May, Attorney General Eric Holder even invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent watchlisting guidelines from being disclosed in litigation launched by an American who was on the no fly list.

Minority Report

Here’s another favourite fact of mine:

Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future,

says Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. Let’s pause for a moment: the US government thinks “it can predict of someone will commit a terrorist act in the future.” Now, what does that remind me of? Oh yes, that’s right: “We’re getting into Minority Report territory.”

More so

when being friends with the wrong person can mean the government puts you in a database and adds DMV photos, iris scans, and face recognition technology to track you secretly and without your knowledge.

Now, I suppose you could argue that you might want to choose your friends better. Weed out all the terrorists in your inner circle. But then, apparently it’s enough to appear in their address book – or perhaps be connected to them on Facebook? Now, honestly, how many of us know what our Facebook friends get up to in their spare time?

Here is what else: not only is the definition of what constitutes terrorism pretty broad, the information stored in that database is also widely shared “with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments” – like the Israeli government for example, as a different article also published by the Intercept, aka more bad news, specifies.

The fact that this information can be shared with agencies from the CIA to the NYPD, which are not known for protecting civil liberties, brings us closer to an invasive and rights-violating government surveillance society at home and abroad, says Hina Shamsi.

And another of my favourite quotes (this is former FBI agent Michael German):

You might as well have a blue wand and just pretend there’s magic in it, because that’s what we’re doing with this—pretending that it works.

Now, I am as fond of magic as the next person but if this is magic, it is dark. Then again, it really isn’t because – mind the second part of that sentence – it doesn’t actually work. Mass surveillance in ineffective. Edward Snowden has said the same.

Some examples:

Sen. Ted Kennedy…was barred from boarding flights on five separate occasions because his name resembled the alias of a suspected terrorist….Mikey Hicks, a Cub Scout…got his first of many airport pat-downs at age two.

Now that last one in particular just raises absurdity to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

Here is what else – and this is the decidedly un-funny side of ineffectiveness:

in 2009…a Nigerian terrorist was able to board a passenger flight to Detroit and nearly detonated a bomb sewn into his underwear despite his name having been placed on [one of the] list[s].

Or consider this: out of the following five cities which one would you say is the odd one out: New York; Dearborn, Mich.; Houston; San Diego; and Chicago. Dearborn you think? You would be right. It is by far the smallest and, let’s be honest, least well known out of the five. Still, it is one of the “top five U.S. cities represented on the main watchlist for “known or suspected terrorists””. Why? Well, what if I were to tell you that 40 per cent of Dearborn’s population “is of Arab descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau”? Smell the racism rat?

The perks of being on a list. Not.

So, what happens then, when you end up on such a list? For one thing, air travel becomes interesting. As such, people on watchlists are often subject to enhanced screening at airports. For example Laura Poitras, one of the journalists who first met Snowden in Hong Kong, has been subject to such scrutiny – for no other crime than filming documentaries (this was pre-Snowden). However,

the government does much more than simply stop watchlisted people at airports. It also covertly collects and analyzes a wide range of personal information about those individuals –including facial images, fingerprints, and iris scans.

Why is this outrageous? Well, for one thing,

Once the U.S. government secretly labels you a terrorist or terrorist suspect, other institutions tend to treat you as one. It can become difficult to get a job (or simply to stay out of jail). It can become burdensome—or impossible—to travel. And routine encounters with law enforcement can turn into ordeals.

More than that,

virtually inescapable government surveillance…has impaired if not eliminated the ability of news-gatherers and attorneys to communicate confidentially with their sources and their clients, according to a new report by two rights advocacy groups.

That’s a pretty big deal. If lawyers can’t communicate with their clients anymore without being snooped on, there goes the ability to build a proper defence. Similarly, if journalists cannot communicate with their source anymore without being overheard, say bye-bye to a free press.

Insufficiently informed journalism can “undermine effective democratic participation and governance,” the report states.

That’s just a couple of examples of what our governments do (to us and others) if we let them.

Should we be worried? Yes, of course we should be. Because, sadly, we have let it get to a point where the surveillance apparatuses built by agencies like the NSA and the GCHQ has have gotten so out of hand that only someone on the inside, someone like Edward Snowden, could save us.

Which is what he has done – at least to the extent that he has given us the information we need to try and save ourselves.

As of recently, it seems that he may not be the only one. Let us hope that he isn’t and that more whistleblowers will follow their example. Because without them we may soon find ourselves well and truly in Minority Report theory and we may not even notice until it’s too late.

So let there be whistleblowers!


2 thoughts on ““We’re getting into Minority Report territory” – recent goings-on in spyland

  1. Pingback: In case you missed it: NSA et.al. are building Skynet | Notes from Self

  2. Pingback: Are you already on a watchlist? A checklist. | Notes from Self

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