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You’ll Never Walk Alone

Here’s a pleasant thought: The super-spooks of the United States government are following you around, and they have the ability to watch pretty much your every move. And some huge companies that you probably patronize every day have been enthusiastically helping out. A lot of stuff you’ve been doing that you thought was private has not been.

All this is coming from so many directions that it’s staggering, and it’s not like we haven’t been warned. Most of us, myself included, just haven’t been paying attention. And here’s what’s going on:

Starting around December we started hearing that the National Security Administration was conducting large-scale spying on U.S. citizens. The NSA isn’t supposed to do that without checking in with a secret panel of judges, known as the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court, whose job it is to be sure that the NSA doesn’t cross the line. This scheme has been in place since the late 1970s, and it’s not a big lift—there’s even a provision for emergencies where the NSA can go snoop first then go to the FISA court afterwards.

But Bush’s NSA has ignored the clear requirements of the law and gone ahead with what appears to be massive, unrestrained surveillance of domestic Internet and telephone communications. There is little legal justification for this, despite the administration’s issuance of a lengthy legal brief and Attorney General Gonzales’ congressional testimony last week to the contrary. Basically, the government’s justification goes like this: We’re at war, and during times of war the President can do whatever he wants.

Which is, of course, nonsense. This ill-defined “war on terror” is likely to be a permanent part of the geopolitical landscape for the foreseeable future, and so Gonzales’ argument implies that the President can ignore the law ad infinitum. Uh, no.

And the government’s spin has been that it’s only looking at a limited number of direct communications with al Qaeda—trust us, we’re only interested in known bad guys, etc. But there’s growing evidence that the government has been doing massive data-mining of telephone and Internet communications within the United States. In other words, millions of communications are scanned for key words and numbers, for patterns, for geographic locations, and suspicious activity is looked at more closely. I just Googled “al Qaeda” to check the spelling—maybe I caused a blip on the surveillance radar screen, who knows?

Who knows? The unrestrained agents of the out-of-control government, that’s who.

Now, the NSA couldn’t do this without help. Somebody’s got give the NSA access to the data, and that somebody’s been doing it in the absence of a court order, a legitimate subpoena, without any sort of process whatsoever. While it’s still unclear who-all that “somebody” is, AT&T has definitely been involved. Last week, a class-action suit commenced against AT&T for allowing the government apparently unrestrained access to its network.

Expect more telecom companies to be brought into the suit, tons of stonewalling, a major telecom company refusing to comply with the requirements of litigation on national security grounds, and for the U.S. government to try to interject itself into the lawsuit in order to derail it.

Meantime, Google is fighting a subpoena from the Department of Justice, asking it to turn over data regarding the public’s use of the Google search engine. Apparently, the government is looking for evidence to justify the latest version of the Child Online Protection Act, as several previous versions have been laughed out of court on First Amendment grounds. Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft have already coughed up the info the government’s looking for.

While the DOJ subpoena doesn’t ask for any stuff that could be traced back to any individuals, it does raise some flags. Most Internet companies, from the big networks to the small local service providers, store a lot of information, and much of it can be traced back—to you.

Trading this information is one of the ways these companies make money; you may not realize it, but you agree to the storing and to some extent the selling of your personal information every time you log on.

Combine this with the unrestrained government snooping and you’ve got Orwell on steroids. Already there is ample evidence that the Feds are looking closely at not just terrorists, but anti-war and social justice groups. Sort of like a virtual Nixon/J. Edgar Hoover tag-team assault on your most fundamental civil liberties.

In hindsight it looks inevitable we’d be at this point. The lure of the Internet and modern communications is so great that we all use them without thinking of the ramifications. It shouldn’t be a great surprise to learn that your online and telephone activity is capable of being captured, stored and monitored. We’ve let it happen, or more accurately, the world has changed so quickly that these incredible events flew by while we weren’t looking.

Maybe it’s time to start paying attention.

—Paul Rapp

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