Privacy SOS

Who says some NSA officials ain’t misbehavin’?

We don’t know much about what the NSA is doing. What we do know – and what we suspect –  is featured in today’s New York Times

Shane Harris, author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, reports that the legacy of John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness program “operates with little accountability or restraint” at the NSA, while filmmaker Laura Poitras invites William Binney, a 32-year NSA-veteran-turned-whistleblower, to talk about what that means for all of us. 

Binney contends that the program he created for foreign intelligence gathering has been “turned inward on this country” and that the NSA has the capacity to monitor what everyone is doing and show the “entire life” of an individual over time. 

Malte Spitz, a Green Party politician in Germany who gave a TED talk on telecom surveillance was able to map his own life using six months’ worth of data that telecoms had gathered on him. Just imagine what kind of dossier he could have put together on himself if he had access to the range of personal data and computer power possessed by the NSA.

As Shane Harris writes, the NSA’s “global surveillance system continues to grow. It now collects so much digital detritus – e-mails, calls, text messages, cellphone location data and a catalog of computer viruses – that the NSA is building a 1-million-square-foot facility in the Utah desert to store and process it. What’s missing, however, is a reliable way of keeping track of who sees what, and who watches whom.”

But meanwhile, it appears that the public does not really want to know. Harris points out that the kind of outcry that that greeted the news of John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness program a decade ago is no more.

“Many Americans seem willing to give up their digital privacy if it means the government has a better chance of catching terrorists,” he writes. 

After the issue was repeatedly raised by Senators Udall and Wyden, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court admitted that the super secret NSA has (at least once!) conducted domestic spying, while keeping the details (in the words of The Atlantic) “scandalously classified”.

Most Americans may be convinced – as most Members of Congress apparently are – that whatever the NSA is doing is in the interests of national security. The notion of a Digital Age Mega Stasi with dossiers on all of us is not something those accustomed to think they live in the “Land of the Free” care to grapple with. 

But what if they had some reason to suspect that some NSA officials may be using their unparalleled access to data to do more than ‘catch terrorists’?

Given the deep shadows enveloping the NSA, we may never know whether some of their more than 30,000 employees have behaved like the thousands who annually are reprimanded for misconduct at the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.

According to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPI), up to 350 FBI employees are disciplined every year. An internal report by the OPI reveals that offenses include insubordination, “misuse of position,” driving under the influence, harassment, lying, watching porn during working hours and having sex with a source.

Then there is the category of “misuse of government database” offenses. One employee was given a 30-day suspension for searching FBI databases for information on public celebrities and the boyfriends of employees and sharing that information. 

Another was given a 23-day suspension for misusing databases “to conduct name checks on two friends who were foreign nationals employed as exotic dancers” and bringing them into the FBI space after hours “without proper authorization.” This  “employee had a prior suspension for unauthorized use of government databases, and was serving in a leadership position at the time of this offense.” 

One case of attempted blackmail is reported on the part of an employee who resigned before being fired. He “misused administrative leave, misused his credentials to get into a night club, misused a government vehicle, provided law-enforcement-sensitive documents to his girlfriend, who was a news reporter, improperly stored secret documents in a hotel room, which were viewed by his girlfriend, and following their break-up, threatened his girlfriend with the release of a sex tape the two had made, which threats she referred to a U.S. attorney’s office.”

The vast DHS with its quarter of a million employees has considerably bigger discipline problems on its hands. According to its Office of the Inspector General, last year it conducted 1,389 investigations leading to 318 arrests and 260 criminal convictions. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were found to be engaging in drug smuggling, robbing narcotics traffickers, dealing in child porn, accepting bribes, and carrying out all kinds of theft and fraud.

Again, databases enter the picture. One FEMA representative “used her access to FEMA data systems to steal over $700,000 from more than 60 eligible FEMA applicants.” She changed the information in the databases and routed the funds to her own and friends’ bank accounts. 

As Robert Beckhusen documents, “corruption cases read like a list of bad career decisions, some appalling; others involve petty greed.” And some are downright bizarre. For instance, a CBP agent working at Boston’s Logan Airport “reportedly stole astronaut Neil Armstrong’s customs declaration form and attempted to sell it on the internet.”

In the “creepy” category is the use of a classified state database made by a 44-year-old police officer in New Jersey. Officer Jeffrey Tyther reportedly pulled his police cruiser behind a car driven by a young woman and ran her plates in the State Police motor-vehicle database. He wanted to get her personal information so he could contact her on Facebook – which he did. 

When she did not respond to his ‘friend’ request, he sent her an email and told her who he was. She notified the police, and Tyther has been suspended without pay and charged with abusing his power. 

Stalking, theft, blackmail: we have only begun to sense how the misuse of information collected in databases can affect our lives. The potential for the abuse of power by NSA employees is simply immense:  just think what is possible if your “entire life” can be summoned up with the click of a mouse?

Perhaps personal horror stories would wake the public up to the importance of knowing “who sees what, and who watches whom” – but unless there are still courageous whistleblowers like William Binney in the bowels of the NSA, how would they ever come to light?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.