How Mission Creep Makes NSA Surveillance Creepier


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Writing in The New York Times, U.C.-Berkeley sociologist James B. Rule notes that most Americans seem untroubled by recent revelations about the NSA's domestic snooping. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 56 percent of respondents  deemed it "acceptable" that "the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism." Rule thinks they might reconsider if they contemplated the likelihood of mission creep:

Government planners have apparently invested billions of dollars to develop these new surveillance capabilities. Given the open-ended nature of this country's relentless campaign against terrorism and other declared evils, it would be naïve to imagine that the state's grip on "big data," achieved at such cost, would be allowed to atrophy in the foreseeable future. It is far more likely that new uses—and, inevitably, abuses—will be found for these surveillance techniques….

The promise that one especially egregious sort of crime (terrorism) can be predicted and stopped can tempt us to apply these capabilities to more familiar sorts of troublesome behavior.

Imagine that analysis of telecommunications data reliably identified failure to report taxable income. Who could object to exploiting this unobtrusive investigative tool, if the payoff were a vast fiscal windfall and the elimination of tax evasion? Or suppose we find telecommunications patterns that indicate the likelihood of child abuse or neglect. What lawmaker could resist demands to "do everything possible" to act on such intelligence—either to apprehend the guilty or forestall the crime.

In its story about the ACLU lawsuit challenging the NSA's mass collection of phone records, the Times notes there is precedent for using powers justified by the threat of terrorism to investigate more mundane forms of crime: "An expanded search warrant authority justified by the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, was used far more often in routine investigations like suspected drug, fraud and tax offenses." Have a look.

Mission creep seems especially likely in the case of phone records and other data held by third parties, which according to the Supreme Court can be perused by the government without raising any Fourth Amendment issues. That means such information, which includes cellphone geolocation data as well as sensitive material stored on remote servers, gets only as much privacy protection as Congress decides to give it. Notably, a majority of the Pew respondents (52 percent) said the government should not "monitor everyone's email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks." Presumably there would be even more opposition to such surveillance if the goal were fighting crime in general and if people understood how vulnerable their online privacy is under current law.

NEXT: Snowden to Remain in Hong Kong, if He's Allowed

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  1. The only thing that will prevent mission creep is the fact that the NSA hates DOJ and the FBI. The obvious way this stuff could be used is in ordinary criminal investigations. But for that to happen, the NSA would have to share the information with FBI. I find that unlikely. The IC never shares anything with anyone. They don't care if someone blows something up. They won't share. They can just lie and get the episode blamed on someone else.

    The bottom line is that for mission creep to happen, the NSA would have to allow other agencies access to the information. To someone who has never worked in government or with the NSA it sounds totally plausible that they would. But you are assuming a level of competence and an absence of bureaucratic malice that doesn't exist. Seriously, the NSA couldn't give two shits if the FBI or DOJ makes more of their little criminal cases. That is their data and no way in hell are they giving it up to the fucking Famous But Incompetents.

    Remember, knowledge is power. And agencies love power.

    1. They don't want to share with the other children.

    2. When your $$ can be held hostage or you have political careerists, shit happens.

      1. 2800 people died on 9-11 because the various government agencies refused to talk to each other. Here we are 12 years, hundreds of billions of dollars and any number of new laws and mandates to share data later and it is no better now than it was then. The political careerists don't affect shit. They are either corrupted by the agency or the agency just nods and then ignores them.

        To get the NSA to give FBI and or DOJ direct access to that information would literally take Obama himself walking down and setting up the connection. And even then, I wouldn't be surprised if the connection somehow "broke" the next day and never got fixed.

  2. Or suppose we find telecommunications patterns that indicate the likelihood of child abuse or neglect unwelcome dissent from the status quo. What lawmaker could resist demands to "do everything possible" to act on such intelligence?either to apprehend the guilty or forestall the crime prevent troublemakers from working against the "Good of Society".

    Let's cut to the chase.

  3. "Who could object to exploiting this unobtrusive investigative tool, if the payoff were a vast fiscal windfall and the elimination of tax evasion? "

    I can think of one person in particular who would object vociferously.

    1. Tim Geithner and John Thune just off the top of my head.

    2. People who work for a living?

  4. "Who could object to exploiting this unobtrusive investigative tool, if the payoff were a vast fiscal windfall and the elimination of tax evasion?"

    Great, so now all the liberals who were outraged by the program will now come around to its usefulness.

    1. http://www.theatlantic.com/pol.....ge/276755/

      Now now. Liberals are really angry about this. They are going to send Obama a stern note. Sure they voted for his re-election. And sure they are all going to turn out in huge numbers to vote Dem in 2014, but they are not going to be happy about it.

      1. I've had to stop myself from writing a huge j'accuse screed to the EFF, saying essentially, "This is what happens when you try to support the guys who hate real-world freedom and beg them for your electronic freedom, you assholes." But I guess we need all the friends we can get right now.

        1. I sent the following email to the author of that story.

          In short Ms Ball, sure liberals voted in overwhelming numbers to re-elect Obama. And sure liberals are going to do everything they can to ensure no one close to Obama much less Obama himself pays any political price for running these programs, and sure liberals are going to turn out in huge numbers to vote Dem in 2014 and 2016 even though this program will continue and everyone responsible for it will keep their jobs. But they won't be happy about it.

          That is really the bottom line isn't it? Is there another bottom line I am missing?

          Oddly, she never has written back. Nothing hurts worse than the truth.

        2. You should. It's like rubbing an animal's nose in their own mess, idiots who enthusiatically support cedeing power and responsibility to government and then are shocked when it doesn't work out should be treated the same.

    2. Doubtful, once all their favorite politicians are in jail for tax evasion.

  5. OT: On a lighter note: Florida Man is the worst supervillain.

    Wildlife officials arrested five men in the Little Econ State Forest in Seminole County Sunday after an officer found them with magic mushrooms, marijuana and an alligator in a backpack

    Interestingly, only the pot and the alligator were illegal to possess.

    1. "What it was doing in my backpack I don't know"...wait, you're serious?

    2. Marijuana is legal in Florida?

      1. Possession of psilocybin-containing mushrooms is legal.

  6. I heard a prog (former journalist), who is actually a nice guy, explain that (a) this Snow or Snowden guy is a really bad person for leaking, but (b) the information he revealed was already widely known, so he was totally different from Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed stuff that nobody had known. (recall that Ellsberg revealed that US intervention in Vietnam as kind of questionable - yeah, that was a real state secret!)

    1. They only know ad homonym. It is part and parcel to being a leftist. It comes from Marx. What matters is not the objective truth, but the class of person who is saying it. If Snowden is one of the "other", then it doesn't matter what he leaked. It can be ignored.

      1. (I still think it's "hominem," but yes.)

    2. Did you explain to him Orwell's concept of doublethink?

  7. Your picture makes me sad, Sullum. We haven't seen our own Robert Clayton Dean for some time. Hope he's alright.

  8. What I find interesting is that YouTube is included in the companies information is being sought from. This would seem to be in violation of the VPPA. I have always wondered how Google is getting around the restrictions on PII release in (b)(F)


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