Monday, January 06, 2014

The NSA spies on its own government

Since Edward Snowden leaked proof of widespread NSA spying on US citizens, people have been wondering who exactly they're spying on. Are they spying on their own government? Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wanted to know, so he asked them directly. The response was not reassuring:

"Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other elected officials?"

That's the question Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put to the National Security Agency's chief in a bluntly worded letter Friday. It seems, however, that the agency cannot categorically say no.

Sanders didn't use the word "spy" lightly. He was careful to define his terms, indicating he meant the collection of phone records from personal as well as official telephones, "content from Web sites visited or e-mails sent," and data that companies collect but don't release to the public.

When asked by The Washington Post, an NSA spokesman said that the agency's privacy safeguards are effective at covering all Americans.

"Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons," the spokesman said.

Which means "none". But think about this for a moment: Congress is meant to oversee the NSA, setting its budgets, regulating its powers, and holding its management accountable to the people. And the NSA is basically trawling them for blackmail material on their movements, relationships, and web-surfing habits. Even if they never use it (something we'll never be able to prove), the potential is there. Which is a strong disincentive to effective oversight.

Or we can look at it another way: spies are supposed to protect their governments against enemies. The NSA clearly thinks Congress 9and by extension, elected representatives in general) are an enemy of the US.

Meanwhile, its worth asking: is this happening here? John Key has said that the GCSB is not engaged in the "wholesale" collection of metadata. But even if you believe him, there's another problem: the NSA is using the data-exchange agreements that make global roaming work to
track everyone's cellphones (which can reveal all sorts of interesting secrets). New Zealand data is almost certainly included, and almost certainly includes MPs. And it all goes into the same spy-cloud, to which the GCSB has access... Even if they're not abusing it, their mere ability to access this data is a danger to our democracy. If MPs want to be safe from spying and spy-blackmail, they need to shut down the GCSB or sever its links to the American panopticon.