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Domestic Spying: Is the Price Worth the Sacrifice of Privacy?

Feb 08, 20117 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

The extremely high cost of domestic spying is very hard to determine since most of it is classified information with classified budgets, but is the sacrifice of privacy making us any safer?

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Credit: Illus_man/Shutterstock

ACLU’s Policy Counsel Mike German suggested that more people should report on the extreme cost of domestic spying. In the security vs. civil liberties arena, we continue to sacrifice privacy even though there is really no evidence that all this surveillance is making us any safer.The Washington Post reported on the U.S. government’s expanded counterterrorism efforts to build a vast domestic spying network filled with collected information on Americans. But defining the actual cost of domestic spying is extremely hard since it is cloaked in secrecy. President Obama introduced his $3.8 trillion proposed fiscal 2011 budget that doesn’t give funding levels for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) — because NIP’S budget is classified [PDF] and does not specify types of surveillance. It does, however, highlight undisclosed funds will be used to strengthen capabilities to support a “U.S. Government-wide counterterrorism action plan.”

Regular people were alarmed when

Fusion centers were supposed to focus on counterterrorism, as places to collect information related to terrorists, but they have little oversight and have grown to include information collected by spying on individuals and peace groups which have nothing to do with terrorism. If local law enforcement were to file a suspicious activity report (SAR) on a person taking photos or videos or notes, which is not illegal, other intelligence agencies can tap into and misunderstand that information to indicate criminal behavior. The SAR database includes all suspicious activity reports, even those made by neighbors spying on neighbors, filling up the database with “useless” information that can cast the shadow of suspicion on innocent people or groups.

For example, the ACLU discovered that the Maryland State Police secretly spied upon a peace group made up of nuns, the Women in Black, who protested war by silently standing vigil. Despite the fact that those nuns were hardly a threat to national security, information was collected on them as if the nuns were demonstrating terrorist behavior.

Do you feel safer now?

The President’s budget for the Department of Justice is $29.2 billion with a plan to increase the percentage of total counterterrorism investigations. It includes “$145 million for enhancements to the FBI’s national security programs, and $100 million, including $8 million in program enhancements, for the National Security Division to address the Department’s highest priority: to protect the American people from terrorist acts. Funding supports counterterrorism, counterintelligence, cybersecurity and other threats against our national security.”

As was reported in Top Secret America, “The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

National security spying vs. civil liberties: The ACLU reported the “National Security Letter provision of the Patriot Act radically expanded the FBI’s authority” to “compile vast dossiers about innocent people.” The domestic spying extends to electronic surveillance and collecting information about what you do online. It allows the FBI to get hold of “the web sites a person visits, a list of e-mail addresses with which a person has corresponded, or even unmask the identity of a person who has posted anonymous speech on a political website.” The FBI doesn’t need prior court approval and can “gag” the person, forbidding them to tell anyone about receiving the NSL.

The ACLU stated that the excessive secrecy surrounding vast networks of domestic spying and government surveillance works in the government’s favor. Thanks to Top Secret America reports, we know that private companies also take part in domestic surveillance as contractors. And then Time reported that major defense contractors have spent years “engaged in systemic fraudulent behavior, while receiving hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money.” How many of those contractors were hired for domestic spying efforts?

And then there’s DHS. According to the Keeping America Safe and Secure factsheet, the budget for DHS is up 1 billion to $44 billion because “Protecting the American people is a top priority of the Administration.” Part of that protection includes TSA and “See Something, Say Something” like the video screens installed at Walmart which encourage neighbors to report suspicious neighbors. According to Death and Taxes, another TSA and “See Something, Say Something” ridiculous report involved a man who was arrested after a (crazy) passenger reported the man’s bagel was making a “suspicious noise.”

Do you feel safer now?

According to the National Security counterterroism factsheet [PDF], “the FY 2011 Budget requests a $300.6 million program increase to help strengthen national security and counter the threat of terrorism. The request includes 440 additional positions, including 126 agents and 15 attorneys, and $219.3 million in increases for the FBI and $7.8 million in increases for the NSD.” There is also a 5% increase for DOJ counterterrorism funding being requested and a 9% increase in resources for intelligence activities. All together, “the FY 2011 Budget request dedicates 15 percent of the Department’s total discretionary budget authority to national security efforts. These funds are needed to allow the Department to identify, track, and defeat terrorists operating in the United States and overseas, and to fortify our intelligence analysis capabilities.”

When it comes to the FBI, plenty of surveillance abuse has been documented. The EFF recently released a report that “FBI intelligence investigations have compromised the civil liberties of American citizens far more frequently, and to a greater extent, than was previously assumed.” After analyzing about 2,500 pages of FBI documents, the EFF discovered it takes about 2.5 years after the FBI commits an intelligence violation before it is reported to the Intelligence Oversight Board. The EFF also reported on “serious misconduct by FBI agents including lying in declarations to courts, using improper evidence to obtain grand jury subpoenas, and accessing password-protected files without a warrant.”

Furthermore, when the EFF attempted to get FOIA documents to explain why the government believes it needs to expand federal surveillance laws such as backdoors in electronic communications, the FBI, DEA and DOJ said they can’t give the EFF all the requested information until the summer of 2012. By then, the documents would provide nothing more than “historical relevance.” Expanding the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) would allow wiretapping capabilities into programs like Skype, Facebook, Twitter and Google. If the government has its way – EFF won’t see the alleged reasons “why” until it’s too late and domestic spying on Americans was expanded yet again.

So is there any big proof that expanding of counterterrorism by all this domestic spying and collection of information on Americans makes us any safer? Frontline’s “Are We Safer” interview with ACLU policy counsel Mike German is definitely worth watching. It talks about the mass increase of surveillance and fusion centers since 9/11 in the name of security.

We may not know the exact cost for domestic spying, as billions and trillions boggle the mind, but we do know it’s out of control with no proof that Americans are truly any safer for sacrificing all that privacy. Do you like paying billions, or most likely trillions, for security theater?

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.