Privacy SOS

Come out come out wherever you are! NSA knows what you did last night

The NSA is spying on the phone and internet use of hundreds of millions, or even billions of people. It's no big shock that amidst this information is stuff that has to do with our sexual proclivities: sexts, porn viewing histories, racy emails, and calls to prostitutes among them. Students of US history and repressive security regimes know well that officials have long used the 'dirty' information they collect about people for blackmail purposes. Turns out that's not just history.

Last night, The Huffington Post published a new Snowden leak in "Top-Secret Document Reveals NSA Spied On Porn Habits As Part Of Plan To Discredit 'Radicalizers'", detailing how the agency uses information about the sexual behaviors and interests of so-called 'radicalizers' to control them. Former Bush administration DHS official Stewart Baker is quoted in the story as saying that people should be happy to hear the NSA is using this information against its adversaries. After all, he says, it's better than killing them!

The FBI once used information about Martin Luther King Jr.'s sex life to attempt to blackmail him. Agents approached him and said, 'We know you are having gay orgies, you should kill yourself to save face and protect your family from embarrassment.' Doctor King would not be intimidated, and he didn't bite. But it wasn't a unique situation.

Julian Sanchez fills us in on some of the history:

In the bad-old-days of American intelligence, J. Edgar Hoover maintained a notorious “Sex Deviate” file filled with salacious bits of information on the sexual proclivities of prominent Americans: actors, columnists, activists, members of Congress, and even presidents. Sometimes this information could be immediately useful—as when 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.” But Hoover could be patient as well: In the 1940s, the FBI investigated and wiretapped columnist and suspected German spy Inga Arvad, who happened to be conducting an affair with a young naval ensign named John Kennedy.  When Kennedy won the Democratic presidential nomination 17 years later, the Arvad dossier was immediately moved to Hoover’s personal office file. Sometimes the information was used to discredit Hoover’s political enemies through targeted leaks; on other occasions, the threat of exposure was enough.

Gay people have long known what the "threat of exposure" means — especially our gay elders, who lived in an America that largely agreed homosexuality was a sin deserving of unemployment and banishment from decent, mainstream American society. (To transgender and gender nonconforming people today, "exposure" can end in death.) Coming out of the closet was therefore long seen as a move to take power away from one's enemies, before they could wield it against you for political purposes.

As late as 2009, the deployment of sexual secrets as weaponry was turned against elected officials by independent filmmaker Kirby Dick in "Outrage". The film points the hypocrite finger at politicians who viewers are made to understand simultaneously dabble in anti-gay legislation and gay sex. 

Lots of people now view coming out of the closet as a good thing, but there's a way in which the unmasking of one's private life as a preemptive block against prospective blackmailers profoundly threatens everyone's sexual privacy. Now that we know the NSA collects it all and has no problem with using it against us, should we all come out of the closet? Should people who have strange but harmless fetishes disclose them to potential employers before they are hired, just in case they rub a government spook the wrong way and might someday be made to suffer for their harmless private kink?

The NSA's goal for its sexual spying operations, like Kirby Dick's in "Outrage", is to manipulate for political purposes the "vulnerabl[ity] in the area of authority when [one's] private and public behaviors are not consistent." Knowledge is power.

It's one thing for an independent filmmaker to 'out' people he might think are closeted, anti-gay politicians. It's quite something else for a shadowy government agency to use its nearly limitless funds to compile blackmail dossiers on its adversaries in secret. And if you think the NSA limits its sexual blackmail to supposed terrorist sympathizers overseas, like those described in the document Snowden disclosed, I've got a bunch of crap to sell you for really high prices. Any smart spy organization worth its salt would make sure, as J. Edgar Hoover did, that it had a standing war chest of potentially embarrassing anecdotes ready to wield against the only people who could truly challenge its power: judges, justices, congress, and domestic political enemies like journalists, dissidents, and whistleblowers.

Apparently the NSA didn't have much on Snowden, or was too embarrassed to attempt to shop it to journalists. All we heard about him is that his ex-girlfriend had a stripper pole.

This situation leaves us with two choices: we either accept that our lives are open books, and 'come out' to the world (yes, including your mom and kids) as our full sexual selves, or we stop the surveillance state from infringing on our most basic right to human dignity: the right to be left alone, in private, to explore and to exist.

Whatever you think about sex, porn, or promiscuity, you likely don't think what consenting adults do in their bedrooms is any of your business. Nor is it the NSA's

Still think you have nothing to hide?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.