Via Common Dreams, political cartoonist Ted Rall foresaw exactly where we would be today in a piece written in 2006:
Several months ago employees of Verizon, the company that enjoys a monopoly on local telephone service where I live, confirmed that my telephone has been tapped by the government.
“I don’t mind that Bush is listening to my calls,” I told the security department. “It’s not like I’m calling al Qaeda. And if they called me, I wouldn’t be able to hear them because of the noise on the line.”
Most Americans feel the same as me. We’re not doing anything wrong, so why should we care if the government knows when we’re stuck on hold? If losing our privacy can prevent another 9/11, isn’t it worth it?
No. First and foremost, domestic spying is not an anti-terrorism program. The CIA estimates that there are between 2,000 and 10,000 al Qaeda members worldwide. Even if there are dozen or two “sleeper cell” members in the United States, they don’t use the phone unless they’re complete idiots. NSA data-mining will never uncover a terrorist or terrorist plot.
Then why are government spooks sorting through our phone records? Because information is power. Calling logs, coupled with analogous databases of e-mail, wire transfer and fax transmissions, could give the FBI the information it needs to pressure a reluctant witness to turn state’s evidence in a crucial case. The SEC could scan for calling clusters between corporate officials and investors in its investigations of insider trading. Politicians could neutralize their rivals by threatening to reveal their personal indiscretions.
As USA TODAY on May 11, the NSA purchased the complete “call-detail histories” for every customer of the biggest three phone companies: AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon. According to the paper, the three telecommunications giants also agreed to keep the NSA updated on new calls placed by their combined 230 million customers. (Verizon and BellSouth deny the story, although close cooperation between such companies and intelligence agencies has long been well-established.)
If the NSA were truly interested in monitoring and capturing Islamist terrorists, it would buy records from outfits like the satellite telephone company Thuraya, the dominant telecommunications provider in the remote regions of Middle East, Central and South Asia where America’s enemies live.
Americans’ first instincts are probably correct. In the short term, most people have little to fear from the NSA data-mining and other domestic surveillance programs. Besides, there’s nothing new here. During the 1990s a Clinton-era NSA chief freely admitted to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that its Echelon keyword and voice-recognition software system sought to intercept “every communication in the world.”
Even if you trust this government, however, there is no way to know what form of government will rule this country in the future. Some successor regime, run by people you don’t know and may not like (and more to the point may not like you), will inherit the security apparatus currently being put into place.