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The National Security Agency Knows If You’ve Been Naughty

| November 29, 2013
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NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (NSA vis Getty Images)

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (NSA vis Getty Images)

Radicalizers everywhere should be disturbed by the latest revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations.

In a report based on yet another top-secret document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Huffington Post (lead writer Glenn Greenwald) says that “the NSA has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.”

The story says the doc identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be gleaned through electronic spying, and then exploited to undermine credibility, reputation and authority. In other words, pile on so much shame that the target is no longer effective.

That the NSA is trying to discredit terrorists is not what is unsettling. Rather, it’s the murky definition of “radicalizer” — and of course the fact that the NSA is in every corner of our lives.

Critics argue that the NSA’s arguments and vulnerabilities used against the targets could easily be expanded to use against other social media-using, porn-watching, jihad-espousing and/or conspiracy-loving “radicals.”

None of the six is accused by the NSA of being involved in terror plots. Says the Huff Post:

Instead, the NSA believes the targeted individuals radicalize people through the expression of controversial ideas via YouTube, Facebook and other social media websites. Their audience, both English and Arabic speakers, “includes individuals who do not yet hold extremist views but who are susceptible to the extremist message,” the document states. The NSA says the speeches and writings of the six individuals resonate most in countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Kenya, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia.

According to the report’s accompanying chart, one of the six is a “well-known media celebrity” who argues that “the U.S. perpetrated the 9/11 attacks”; his vulnerability is said to be “a glamorous lifestyle.” Another target argues publicly that “non-Muslims are a threat to Islam” — not an uncommon viewpoint among fundamentalists of any faith. Another target is a foreign citizen the NSA describes as a “respected academic”; he holds the view that “offensive jihad is justified,” and his vulnerabilities are listed as “online promiscuity” and “publishes articles without checking facts.” Another target argues that “the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks on itself”; he is vulnerable to accusations of “deceitful use of funds.”

Critics argue that the NSA’s arguments and vulnerabilities used against the targets could easily be expanded to use against other social media-using, porn-watching, jihad-espousing and/or conspiracy-loving “radicals” — a huge population, if you start counting.

As the San Francisco Chronicle’s James Temple pointed out, “as always, the concern lies with the NSA making decisions about appropriate targets and boundaries absent any outside scrutiny. At what point does a devout Muslim preacher become a ‘radicalizer’? At what point does the leader of a protest movement, like Occupy Wall Street, become a ‘radicalizer’?”

He goes on to note historical precedent:

It’s worth recalling that U.S. spy agencies have a horrendous track record on this issue. In the mid-’70s, it became clear the government had engaged in systematic surveillance of domestic targets, including Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Daniel Ellsberg, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a recent post. The FBI’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover, maintained a “sex deviate” file that he wielded as a political weapon.

“This is straight out of the J. Edgar Hoover playbook,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director at EFF in San Francisco. “These people aren’t terrorist suspects, it’s clear from the documents. They’re people who are saying things that the government doesn’t like.

“It’s why we have checks and balances in our system, it’s why we don’t let the government do mass surveillance … and it’s why we make them go before a judge before you do this,” she added. “Otherwise you get mission creep and things like this, sadly.”

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was more specific in the Huff Post story:

“Wherever you are, the NSA’s databases store information about your political views, your medical history, your intimate relationships and your activities online,” he said. “The NSA says this personal information won’t be abused, but these documents show that the NSA probably defines ‘abuse’ very narrowly.”

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  • J Nunley

    Same applies to the news and internet companies.

    They know the social psychology bell curve for all political issues, how about some public policy that reflects it! Will society and individuals be judged using data that accurately reflects the queries entered? Would Google ever be politically pressured to skew the preference distribution of a sensitive subject or political/social issue?