Monday, May 06, 2013

Mass-surveillance in the USA

Back in the Cold War, East Germany's Stasi were notorious for their mass-surveillance. In addition to their vast network of informants - about 2% of the entire population was ratting on the rest - they also read everyone's mail, and tapped tens of thousands of phone calls simultaneously. This was generally agreed by the West to be a Bad Thing, a hallmark of a totalitarian society.

Thirty years on, and the US has admitted it is using exactly that sort of mass-surveillance. In interviews after the Boston bombings, a former FBI counterterrorism agent admitted that all US phone-calls are recorded for future surveillance use:

On Wednesday night, Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between the two. He quite clearly insisted that they could:

"BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It's not a voice mail. It's just a conversation. There's no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?

CLEMENTE: "No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It's not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.

BURNETT: "So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.

CLEMENTE: "No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not."

"All of that stuff" - meaning every telephone conversation Americans have with one another on US soil, with or without a search warrant - "is being captured as we speak".

On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello, and she asked him about those remarks. He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that "all digital communications in the past" are recorded and stored

[Emphasis added]

So much for the "land of the free".

In East Germany, mass surveillance had a corrosive effect on society. People guarded their conversations, and watched what they said even with close friends, because you never knew who was an informer. That effect is already visible among the US's Muslim community, who have been targeted for intensive surveillance since the war on terror began. And as the US steps up domestic spying, that corrosion is likely to spread. The Stasi recognised that you cannot have a free society when people are afraid to talk to one another. The US needs to recognise it too, and shut down the NSA.