Now the NSA has your Little Black Book

Before the internet, we used to keep the names and telephone numbers of our friends and acquaintances in a little address book. Young people who dated a lot had a ‘little black book’ with telephone numbers of past and potential dinner partners.

Nowadays the equivalent is an iPhone address list, often kept in the cloud, or buddy lists for chat rooms. The Washington Post reveals, based on the leaked powerpoint slides of Edward Snowden, that the National Security Agency has been scooping up 250 million such contacts a year, mainly abroad, but it inevitably has gathered millions or tens of millions of such records from Americans.

Back in the 1980s, if the Federal government had wanted to see the address book I kept in a kitchen drawer, it would have had to apply to a judge for a warrant. But now the NSA can gather that information at will. The prohibition under which it operates, of not actively spying on Americans, is clearly impossible to implement in a world where communications bounce around the world from server to server.

Apologists for the NSA surveillance allege that it is careful not to use Americans’ private information for any other purpose but tracking down terrorists. That is, the gathering up of our address books is innocent because the NSA is an honest broker and a good steward of our information.

But let us start the debate elsewhere. The real question is, what does the Federal government have a right to? No one thinks it has a right to our smart phone address lists or other contact lists. Any judge you asked in the 1980s would have wanted solid evidence of wrongdoing before he or she authorized the FBI to barge in and confiscate your hand-written address book. Why should it matter what medium the address book is written and stored in? Pen and paper or zeroes and ones on the internet? The answer is no. The Federal government does not have a right to our private information unless there are strong grounds to believe that a crime is being committed.

Moreover, the idea that the government employees and contractors who have access to these NSA records are all trustworthy is absurd. Address books showing a person’s circle are extremely revealing. They could be used for insider trading. We already know that the DEA has been given access to the NSA records and has used them to prosecute people over pot buys, and that the government has systematically lied to the judges about where their information came from.

They don’t have a right.

17 Responses

  1. Yes, this is how the end of an empire looks like: the isolated elite runs amok, surveillance and security spread like cancer; military overstretch, economy and ecology are abused, media profits on infotainment; poverty, unemployment, structural and open violence spread, and finally never ending wars.

    Everything falls apart.

    The system’s contradictions are so great and overwhelming that whatever you do, nothing happens. Keeping the facade deepens the apathy and fear.

    What to do?

    Return to the basics: economy as the handling of limited resources (potatoes!); politics realized as participartory democracy; the small community producing work, food, and energy locally in cooperatives and work shops (Peter Kropotkin’s “Fields, Factories and Workshops” is not far away).

    A big menu, indeed.

    Cheers, Björn Lindgren

  2. Right, and if they ever had a right (which they don’t and wouldn’t), then they forfeited it by its casual specific and wholesale abuse.

  3. As a European it bugs me to no end that people in the US only seem to worry about the repercussions for US citizens, if they worry at all. This website is no exception.
    It means that more than 95% of the world population is free game to the NSA. How come it is not ok to hack your contact list, but it’s ok to hack mine?
    At least, US citizens had the chance to vote pro or against the politicians who created the system. We, the 95%, have had no such choice.
    Personally, I don’t mind at all if the NSA snoops on its own citizens. But I do mind a lot if it snoops on me. After all, it is your NSA, not mine.

  4. “Now the NSA has your Little Black Book”
    That’s so reassuring; I feel so secure in knowing I’m being looked after 24/7/365.
    I mean, how many governments care that much for their citizens?
    We should all sleep well with this in mind…

  5. Once upon a time the US claimed to be the defender of freedom and human rights including these as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Article 5.

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

    Article 10.

    Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

    After Guantanamo Bay, the US no longer upholds these rights.

    Now Article 12 has been rendered obsolete by the defenders of freedom.

    Article 12.

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

    Eleanor Roosevelt will be turning in her grave.

  6. Didn’t it used to be that people actually were prosecuted and went to jail for lying to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body?

    “NSA Director Admits He Lied About Surveillance Thwarting 54 Terror Plots”

    link to dailykos.com

    But who’s counting? See how the “plausible excusability” defense is built right into the statements of “fact?” This guy is almost as good as the post-coaching Oliie “Don’t cry for me, America” North…

  7. The Constitution is explicit, you cannot even collect the info with out a warrant which is presented to the accusant with the crime stated and the particular things and place to be searched.

    I want us all to start linking empire with loss of freedoms at home. Many have gotten erections over their pet wars, then tut-tut when another freedom is lost. THEY ARE DIRECTLY CONNECTED.

    A gang (it isn’t a government anymore) that gets used to violating rights abroad, will do the same thing at home, treating the home country like a conquered province.

  8. Keep writing, Professor.
    Potus, Scotus and congress may see that the People Of The United States are not content to be stripped of their Dignity!

    Stop The Wars!

  9. I think we’ve gotten past the stage where NSA factoids outrage the people of the US / Britain. That WaPo article you linked to is not even in the top 5 “Most Popular” articles! In the past, news on this scale would have triggered protests on the streets!

    I’m surprised people remain so indifferent to this, but now all the NSA has to do is brazen it out for the next few months and soon, these articles will barely register on the public consciousness.

    Privacy is dead. Long live privacy!

  10. Nice article.

    In 1956, the Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units was formed. In the 1970s, it was commented that its files are not subject to Freedom of Information Act inquiries and consequently are more secure than those of the CIA. Check out its website: http://www.leiu.org

    There have been a proliferation of “fusion centers” that are intended to break down barriers between intelligence-gathering organizations within the U.S. Check out this link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusion_center

    The fusion centers have come under ACLU scrutiny.

    It is important to note that state police, county sheriffs, and local police departments often have their own intelligence units that collaborate with federal agencies with intelligence sharing. Many of their targets have been
    political.

    In the 1980s, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor and a bitter critic of President Reagan – famously calling him “President Pruneface”, had his townhouse residence subject to government electronic eavesdropping devices during a joint investigation of the Detroit Police Department intelligence unit and FBI into “public corruption”. Young was never charged with a crime and the fallout from this investigation exacerbated race relations in Detroit.

    The Detroit Police Department was sued in the 1960s by Jimmy Hoffa’s defense attorney, William Bufalino, for bugging the phones of his law firm.

    The FBI, NSA, and CIA were all involved in a federal court litigation filed in 1972 by the ACLU involving extensive surveillance of Detroit attorney Abdeen Jabara, who defended Sirhan Sirhan. The case was settled in the 1980s. Jabara was never charged with a crime.

  11. The Patriot act allows it. Congress approved it.

    Its hard to see the current SCOTUS finding a pathway to rescind parts of the law let alone accepting a challenge in the first place – the votes are not there. Plus I have doubts an aged jurist fully understands the intricacies of this type of communication. They are hardly civil libertarians either.

    The Executive & Legislative might be ameniable to tone down the laws language only with a public outcry of massive proportions brought about by some single really embarrassing constitutional violation. Again low chances of that happening. Opinion polls already show disapproval of surveillance efforts. And this disapproval didnt translate into much debate the last time the Act came up for review.

    But for the sake of argument, lets say the Patriot Act is somehow thrown out the window its scope is curtailed. The government can still use pre 9-11 “super warrant” capabilities: a judge who seldom rejects claims and is available at all times of day plus accepts retroactive application (given some reasonable time limit). In addition they can still bring a lot of pressure upon content providers by many other means, like FCC licence renewal difficulties, fines for something or other, etc.

    They may not have the right but realistically curbing the Patriot Act will take many many years.

    • It all depends on the political persuasion of the federal judge or judges hearing the case.

      In Detroit in 2005, United States District Court Judge Anna Diggs-Taylor held that ECHELON program of the NSA violated the Warrant Clause of the United States Constitution.

      Diggs-Taylor was a Carter appointee to the federal bench. She marched with MLK from Selma to Montgomery. Her former husband, Charles Diggs, was a long time U.S. Congressman from Detroit who was convicted by the Justice Department after an FBI investigation into a kickback scheme. She was no friend of law enforcement.

      Her ruling was reversed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by a conservative panel.

      • “It all depends on the political persuasion of the federal judge or judges hearing the case.”

        You are correct Mark. Diggs-Taylor was a liberal judge and ruled as you would expect a liberal judge to rule. Her ruling was reversed by the conservative Sixth Circuit, which is the way you would expect a conservative court to rule.

        The same thing occurs in other instances. For example the ultra-liberal Ninth Circuit has had more rulings overturned than any other Appeals Court that I am aware of.

        This is the natural order of things, if one can call it that. In the above cases, neither is “right” or “wrong.” Rather whether one agrees with a court’s decision or not depends on one’s own political persuasion. There is no overarching standard by which one can definitively conclude the correctness of the courts’ decisions.

  12. Governments do not have rights.

    People have rights.

    Governments have powers. Constitutional governments have legal powers assigned by the constitution.

    Rifling through our address books at random is not one of those legal powers.

  13. Getting a hold of your address book can show someone WHO you associate with. It can not provide information about the NATURE of that association. Jesus associated with criminals and made no secret about it. He was proud of it. Criminals are the ones who need the extra help of a guidance counselor to change their destructive behavior. In any society the government is THE Guidance Counselor. One the is some cases needs to be fired. But it should not have its hands tied when it is trying to do its job. When the police go to a judge and say we want a warrant it is only natural that most judges say yes most of the time if not all of the time. So if the police know that asking for a warrant is merely a formality it is only natural that they should come to see not applying for a warrant in cases where no one will no anyways what they have done as like driving 65 in a 60 speed zone. You shouldn’t do it but if you did it will be considered a pretty trivial offence.

  14. “Terrorist” as target is no limit at all. They have admitted to chasing people “linked” to possible terrorists, and people linked to people linked. And the investigators, as well as the politicians who hire them, have already sloshed the term “terrorist” to include not only drug-smugglers but pretty much anyone with political ideas they don’t currently endorse. Show me anyone who is more than two degrees separated from those definitions.

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