Privacy SOS

Making it easier for the NSA to dominate American society

In 1983, the New York Times magazine published a story called "The Silent Power of the NSA" by investigative reporter David Burnham. The entire thing is well worth reading, but the last paragraph strikes me as particularly resonant today.

No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.'s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency's budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans – the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends. Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation's security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.

Amidst the torrential downpour of the Snowden disclosures, it's getting increasingly difficult for the US government to pretend that the NSA is not engaged in massive domestic spying efforts, or that it hasn't been lying to the public about its activities for over a decade. Nonetheless, we continue to hear the same chimera from top level officials: the NSA's surveillance is necessary and it is well regulated, overseen by all three branches of government.

Back in 1983, Burnham wrote that "No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.'s power," that "[n]o Congressional committee subjects the agency's budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review." Thirty years later, we have some laws on the books that are meant to govern the NSA's surveillance operations, but as the ACLU has long warned, those laws actually grant the secretive agency power to spy on the entire world with hardly any limits. And those congressional committees tasked with providing oversight? They are for all intents and purposes guard dogs for the NSA's unchecked power — with obvious and notable exceptions.

Where does that leave us in 2013?

It leaves us with the chilling realization that hardly anything has changed in thirty years, except that in critical ways, things are now worse. Most of our lives are performed and transmitted digitally in one way or another, and the NSA's computing power has risen to the challenge of sifting through and capturing from that gigantic data stream pretty much everything it desires. Meanwhile, our political climate has been poisoned by a bipartisan acceptance (in Washington, at least) of the maxim that the government's primary responsibility is to enrich and embolden the Security State, and not to protect the constitutional rights of its subjects citizens.

Thirty years after Burnham warned about the NSA's growing appetite for power, it is indeed easier than ever before for the NSA to dominate American society.

After all, knowledge is power. There's almost nothing the NSA does not know, if it wants to know it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.