In the latest news report based on documents revealed by Edward Snowden, we’ve learned that the NSA creates profiles of porn viewing, online sexual activity and more from its vast database of Internet content and transactional data as part of a plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through speeches promoting disfavored—but not necessarily violent—political views. The report— by Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher and Ryan Grim in the Huffington Post—shows how the NSA proposes to use personal information gleaned from electronic surveillance to blackmail, silence and otherwise marginalize people for advocating “radical” beliefs.
[…] The public and policy makers may hear “foreign intelligence information” and think it means data which helps identify and neutralize people who want to kill Americans, and not that which identifies and undermines peaceable people who merely hold radical, violent or even revolutionary ideas in the eyes of those currently in power.
Of course, intelligence agencies have used embarrassing information against people for their political beliefs in the past. The Federal Bureau of Investigation used recordings it gleaned from bugging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s private quarters to attempt to blackmail him into silence, despite the fact that King unwaveringly supported non-violent means. It was his revolutionary idea of social equality for all races, and his anti-war beliefs, that made him dangerous.
As Bret Max Kaufman, Legal Fellow at the ACLU National Security Project writes:
King was not alone on the government’s long list of targets; he shared marquee billing with boxer Muhammed Ali, humorist Art Buchwald, author Norman Mailer, and even Senator Howard Baker. But the greater scandal was that — as the Church Committee revealed in 1976 — these big names appeared alongside more than one million other Americans, including half a million so-called “subversives.”
Julian Sanchez at the Cato Institute points out another historical examples of actual and threatened blackmail:
[FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover’s right hand Cartha DeLoach proudly reported that the Bureau had learned of a truculent senator caught driving drunk with a “good looking broad.” The senator, DeLoach explained, was promptly made “aware that we had the information, and we never had trouble with him on appropriations since.”
These practices were disgusting, dangerous and abusive then, just as they are now. What’s new is that, in a mass surveillance ecosystem, the scale and scope on which this kind of activity can take place is unprecedented. Once it collects information about hundreds of millions of people in mass, “dossiers” of potentially embarrassing information—or blackmail quality secrets—dirt on anyone is just a few searches away. Intelligence operatives can secretly tar anyone, seemingly at will, since the NSA has the technological capacity, and no one has identified a law which would, if followed, intercede. These abilities, never mind the will to use them, are incompatible with individual freedom and democracy. [read]