As reported earlier this week, the National Security Agency is now collecting photos from online to create a massive facial recognition database. Americans shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about that, says new National Security Agency director Admiral Michael Rogers, according to Washington Post article today headlined, "New NSA chief seeks to reassure public on surveillance." How does the admiral hope to reassure us? The Post reports:
The new director of the National Security Agency on Tuesday acknowledged that the agency uses facial-recognition tools but said the intent is primarily to identify terrorists and help prevent attacks — adding that such technologies are not broadly directed against Americans.
"We do not do this on some unilateral basis against U.S. citizens," said Adm. Michael S. Rogers, in some of his first public remarks since taking the helm of the embattled spy agency two months ago.
A year after the first leaks emerged about the scope of NSA surveillance programs, Rogers is seeking to reframe the public debate that has damaged the reputation and morale of the NSA, saying the public needs to understand not just what the organization does but also why it does it and under what limits.
Here's what the admiral needs to understand: Many Americans do not count on the permanent good will of the minions of the domestic surveillance state. As President Obama's own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board warned in their January report on the domestic spying abuses implicated by the bulk collection of essentially every American's telephone records:
Beyond such individual privacy intrusions, permitting the government to routinely collect the calling records of the entire nation fundamentally shifts the balance of power between the state and its citizens (emphasis added). With its powers of compulsion and criminal prosecution, the government poses unique threats to privacy when it collects data on its own citizens. Government collection of personal information on such a massive scale also courts the ever-present danger of "mission creep." An even more compelling danger is that personal information collected by the government will be misused to harass, blackmail, or intimidate, or to single out for scrutiny particular individuals or groups (emphasis added). To be clear, the Board has seen no evidence suggesting that anything of the sort is occurring at the NSA and the agency's incidents of non-compliance with the rules approved by the FISC have generally involved unintentional misuse. Yet, while the danger of abuse may seem remote, given historical abuse of personal information by the government during the twentieth century, the risk is more than merely theoretical (emphasis added).
Perhaps government spies will always and everywhere be punctilious in their respect for the liberties guaranteed Americans under the Constitution, but it's better to make sure that they never have access to tools that might tempt them not to be.