NSA Spied On Porn Habits Of 'Radicalizers,' Planned To Use Details To Embarrass Them

from the j-edgar-alexander dept

The latest report on leaked Snowden docs from Glenn Greenwald (along with Ryan Gallagher and Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post) shows how the NSA had a plan to use the porn surfing habits of certain people they didn't like to discredit them. If this brings back memories of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, effectively blackmailing politicians, you've connected the dots. This is why we've said that even people who think they've done nothing wrong, should be wary of the NSA spying on everyone. It's easy to turn even legal behavior, like surfing porn, into a personal embarrassment.
It's important to note here that the "targets" in this case are not US persons, and they all do appear to dislike the US, and some appear to have advocated for jihad against the US. However, as the report notes, most of them are not terrorists or even connected to any terrorist organization. They're just activists and advocates who have spoken out criticizing the US. In one case, a guy was targeted for claiming that "the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks upon itself" -- an argument that plenty of respectable people have made. The lack of any terrorist connection is actually, stunningly, used against these individuals, as one NSA document notes that since they don't communicate with terrorists it's worse because it suggests "that the target audience includes individuals who do not yet hold extremist views but who are susceptible to the extremist message."
One can argue, as former NSA and DHS official Stewart Baker does in the article, that this kind of prying through someone's private life to embarrass them in public is "fairer and maybe more humane" than dropping bombs on them but that assumes an either/or sort of situation, which I'd like to believe that even someone like Baker doesn't actually believe.

And, really, the real issue here is the clear slippery slope. It's reasonable to argue that the US should be spying on terrorists who want to attack us. That's a mission that makes sense. But there's a pretty big gap between spying on terrorists who are trying to kill us, and snooping through the private activities of those with an audience who just don't like us. And, from there, of course, it's not a very far leap over to arguing that activists within the US who are critical of the government should be subject to the same treatment.
While Baker and others support using surveillance to tarnish the reputation of people the NSA considers "radicalizers," U.S. officials have in the past used similar tactics against civil rights leaders, labor movement activists and others.

Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI harassed activists and compiled secret files on political leaders, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. The extent of the FBI's surveillance of political figures is still being revealed to this day, as the bureau releases the long dossiers it compiled on certain people in response to Freedom of Information Act requests following their deaths. The information collected by the FBI often centered on sex -- homosexuality was an ongoing obsession on Hoover's watch -- and information about extramarital affairs was reportedly used to blackmail politicians into fulfilling the bureau's needs.

[....] James Bamford, a journalist who has been covering the NSA since the early 1980s, said the use of surveillance to exploit embarrassing private behavior is precisely what led to past U.S. surveillance scandals. "The NSA's operation is eerily similar to the FBI's operations under J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to 'neutralize' their targets," he said. "Back then, the idea was developed by the longest serving FBI chief in U.S. history, today it was suggested by the longest serving NSA chief in U.S. history."
Baker -- the same guy who blamed civil libertarians for 9/11 and blamed privacy advocates for an over-aggressive TSA -- brushes off the idea that the NSA might ever abuse this stated program of spying on people's personal lives and habits to discredit them publicly.
Baker said that until there is evidence the tactic is being abused, the NSA should be trusted to use its discretion. "The abuses that involved Martin Luther King occurred before Edward Snowden was born," he said. "I think we can describe them as historical rather than current scandals. Before I say, 'Yeah, we've gotta worry about that,' I'd like to see evidence of that happening, or is even contemplated today, and I don't see it."
We're not exactly talking ancient history here. The abuses happened within Baker's own lifetime, even if they didn't happen within Snowden's. But the idea that within a single generation we've suddenly created more virtuous humans who won't abuse power is kind of laughable, and I'm curious as to what Baker's basis for believing that is. For someone who has spent so much of his career trying to help the hunt for bad guys, he sure has an optimistic view of the intentions of human beings. Oh, I forget, he's only talking about people on "our side" who I guess are naturally virtuous -- whereas folks on the other side are naturally morally destitute. Because that makes no sense at all, which seems to be the kind of arguments that Baker gravitates to.

Either way, it's exactly this kind of activity that has so many people concerned about the NSA. They're clearly not just spying on terrorist communications for the sake of preventing an attack. Now they're directly talking about using private information, like the fact that someone surfs porn or is "attracted to fame" to do character assassinations of people they dislike. The ability to abuse such a power is vast, and it's laughable to think that the NSA is so full of perfectly virtuous people that it would never make use of such powers.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2013 @ 8:23am

    Re:

    That's exactly the point: Everyone, men, women, watches porn of some variety or has visited risqué sites. Which is why shaming them using their browsing habits is an extremely powerful tool, as it applies to anyone. No one wants their browsing habits rubbed in their face.

    This means that any power the Judiciary had over the NSA is gone, as well as Congress or the Senate. Maybe we should see which of our 'representatives' voted to keep NSA's funding of this operation and try to guess what kind of browsing habits they have.

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