Maybe a Government That Constantly Violates Rights Is More Rotten Than We Realize

Burner phoneRoute275

Just two days ago, the New York Times revealed that the Drug Enforcement Administration engages in domestic phone surveillance on a scale that may dwarf the snoopy misdeeds of the National Security Agency. Through its Hemisphere Project, the DEA partners with AT&T to trawl through 26 years (and counting) of stored phone data to identify repeating patterns of calls that can identify people even if they frequently change anonymous "burner" phones. That call you make to your bookie every Saturday? Yeah. That's a give-away, no matter if you make it from different numbers. As Reason's Matt Welch remarked after the report's publication, it "should put to rest the debate over whether we live in a free country. We don't." He's right, though after the headlines of recent months (and the years before) it's not clear that the matter should still be a subject of debate.

Why do records of phone calls matter? As the ACLU's Catherine Crump notes, "While people may dispose of their phones, it’s much harder for people to change their lives. If Alice calls Bob twice a day and Carol every Sunday, Alice is likely to do that even if she switches phones. By analyzing calling patterns within the database, it’s possible to identify Alice’s new phone." Tracking and recording the patterns of our lives is deeply revealing about who we are and how we live.

The Hemisphere database is searchable only through the issuance of a subpoena—an "administrative subpoena" that the DEA issues itself. If you're thinking that's not much of a safeguard, you're probably in good company. At least, the feds seem to believe the public at large would find the program off-putting to the public at large. "All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document," a slide given to the Times says. The program was revealed almost incidentally in the course of a lawsuit over federal infiltration of antiwar groups.

Imagine that. Yet another vast and creepy spy program is revealed in the course of a legal challenge to intrusive government targeting of peaceful political activists. That rabbit hole goes deep.

This comes against a backdrop of months of revelations of NSA surveillance on phone and Internet communications. And that came after news about the secretive Justice Department seizure of Associated Press phone records and the investigation and threatened prosecution of Fox News reporter James Rosen for reporting on stories in a way the government finds inconvenient.

That's all this year, and it's not, by any means, a complete list of the disturbing incursions into personal freedom committed by the federal government.

The ShadowThe ShadowAt what point do we stop pretending that these are reparable glitches in an imperfect but otherwise decent system of government, and face the fact that this is the government, right down to its ugly core?

Nobody but the Shadow can know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, let alone the shriveled pumps possessed by government officials. The rest of us have to go by their actions. If those actions include vast, suspicionless surveillance of the population and targeting of critical journalists, perhaps a few eyebrows should be raised. Throw in gag orders on people ordered to help the government spy on others. Then stir in the muzzling of defendants to prevent them from talking about the torture they suffered at the hands of government agents. If you're not backing away slowly, you may be part of the problem.

The point here isn't that the U.S. government has overstepped a few boundaries. The point is that these repeatedly overstepped boundaries are just now waking us up to what the U.S. government has become.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Just wait until we find out about the massive FDA phone database.

  • ||

    The hits keep on coming. There is far worse still yet to come. Count on it.

  • ||

    Just wait until the years start counting up after he's out of office and intrepid investigative journalists/etc. start saying things like, "Well, I didn't want to damage his historic[ally bad] presidency by revealing this when he was in power, but my conscience finally got the better of me, so..."

  • Hugh Akston||

    This post raises a lot of important questions: Did Assad use chemical weapons? Did the rebels use chemical weapons and make it look like Assad? Does the US have the responsibility to intervene when other countries use chemical weapons? Does the President have to seek Congressional approval before striking Syria? What are the objectives to military action in Syria? Should the US supply weapons to Syrian rebels? If so, how many, and to whom? What implications do the situation in Syria have for the Middle East, Israel, and the rest of the world.

    So many important issues to discuss, I just don't know ho we'll fit them all in.

  • ||

    "should put to rest the debate over whether we live in a free country. We don't."

    I was recently told that if you can publicly complain that you don't live in a free country without being thrown in prison then you ipso facto do.

  • Goldwin Smith||

    Well that true I guess. Doesn't mean that things are going in the right direction though...

  • Juice||

    What? No it's not true. Why would you think that?

  • Goldwin Smith||

    I guess it depends on how you define a "free country." If you define it as anything short of totalitarian police state then I suppose you could argue that not being thrown in prison for badmouthing the government does mean you are living in a free country. Of course none of this implies a libertarian state or that something worse can't happen and certain laws and programs shouldn't be opposed.

  • Libertymike||

    If you have to tell the government how much money you make each year, you do not live in a free country.

    If you can't keep the entirety of your income, you do not live in free country.

    If you challenge the government's authority to confiscate your income and you are subsequently prosecuted, you do not live in a free country.

    If you do not tell the government how much money you make each year and you are subsequently prosecuted, you do not live in a free country.

    If you have to produce identification to some thug with a gun and a badge, you do not live in a free country.

    If you have to produce identification in order to purchase a fine lager, you do not live in a free country.

    If you refuse to permit your DNA to be taken from you and you are subsequently assaulted and battered by thugs with a gun and a badge, you do not live in a free country.

    Need more?

  • Goldwin Smith||

    If you have to tell the government how much money you make each year, you do not live in a free country.

    If you can't keep the entirety of your income, you do not live in free country.

    If you challenge the government's authority to confiscate your income and you are subsequently prosecuted, you do not live in a free country.

    If you do not tell the government how much money you make each year and you are subsequently prosecuted, you do not
    live in a free country.

    If you have to produce identification to some thug with a gun and a badge, you do not live in a free country.

    How many countries does that not include? I'm serious.

    Problem is I don't think too many people would think of those things as making a country unfree. And why do you think I'm pessimistic about the future...

  • Libertymike||

    It includes the US. How many others? Most, but probably none if you add:

    If you live in a country which has about 4% of the world's population and which incarcerates about 25% of the people incarcerated in the world, you do not live in a free country.

    Yes, you have identified the problem. Most peeps do not even know that they are slaves.

  • Goldwin Smith||

    Yes, you have identified the problem. Most peeps do not even know that they are slaves.

    When your beef with the USG is that the right TOP MEN should be given more power to tax and regulate while giving you more free shit then you aren't going to be seeing a lot of anti-government sentiment.

  • SomeGuy||

    i think some of those are ridiculous. Hell with that standard when thsi country was first formed it wasn't free....just a little over the top.

  • ||

    If the government can take can seize your property under the pretext of blight, you do don't live in a free country.

    If the government can seize your property and give it to another individual because it might bring in more taxes, you do not live in a free country.

    If the government can prosecute you for picking up an eagle feather, you do not live in a free country.

    If a government agent can you shoot you then get paid vacation, you do no live in a free country.

    If you are harrassed or beaten or threatened by an armed thug because you demand that he justify his authority, you do not live in a free country.

    If a pig can shoot your dog for no reason and suffer no consequences, you do not live in a free country.

    If you can go to prison for smoking only government approved plants, you do not live in a free country.

    If you have to stop at a border patrol checkpoint and prove your citizenship, you do not live in a free country.

    If the government can tell you what you can or cannot say on the radio or television, you do not live in a free country.

  • ||

    If you can be arrested for merely failing to have identification on your person, you do not live in a free country.

    If the government can stop and frisk you without any fucking pretext, you do not live in a free country.

    If you are compelled to purchase health insurance, you do not live in a free country.

  • Goldwin Smith||

    If the government can tell you what you can or cannot say on the radio or television, you do not live in a free country

    If you count hate speech laws then that would include pretty much every first world country.

    If you are compelled to purchase health insurance, you do not live in a free country.

    Silly you, in most countries healthcare is free!

    If you have to stop at a border patrol checkpoint and prove your citizenship, you do not live in a free country.

    Good thing Sam Neill died in that sub movie.

  • Floyd Alsbach||

    The function of semi-free speech is very similar to a pressure valve, it lets of excess steam in a harmless manner so the thing doesn't explode. Just a sophisticated mechanism of control.

  • BlueBook||

    Is it weird that I read "shriveled pumps" and immediately thought of women's shoes?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Yes.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Yeah but terrorism, right? Right?

  • ||

    Why is there a Japanese cell phone in the pic?

  • Invisible Finger||

    But David Simon told me on The Wire that the poor ol' po-leece couldn't get this information!

    If Alice calls Bob twice a day and Carol every Sunday, Alice is likely to do that even if she switches phones.

    So basically it only works if Bob and Carol use AT&T exclusively. If they periodically switch carriers, then the DEA would have to merge databases and keep track of all the times you changed your phone number, plus all the times Bob changed his number and all the times Carol changed hers. And with number re-use they'd have to keep track of when a number was assigned to Bob as opposed to somebody else.

    The DEA may have shitloads of money to waste, but I doubt they can easily keep all this straight and merge the databases from different carriers and run the necessary queries to have any semblance of accuracy. OK, close enough for government work might be all the DEA needs for a wrong-door raid and asset seizure.

    But I say let the agencies drown themselves in bad data. Just cut them off when they beg for more money to figure out the mess they can't ever figure out.

  • Floyd Alsbach||

    The illusion of self determination is critical to maintain peace.

  • ebola131||

    They (the "big government" proponents) have destroyed the civil society given to us by the Founders.
    They have turned the Constitution into toilet paper.
    Just remember; things that can't continue, won't.....and this can't continue.
    We're waiting.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement