Spying On Americans Should Not Be Normal

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Spying On Americans Should Not Be Normal

We all want the government to listen to us, just not like this.

I know you’re all as shocked as I am at the big reveal of WikiLeaked CIA documents from the mysterious “Vault 7.” The trove, which was released Tuesday, consisted of thousands of files. The Times said it “appears to be the largest leak of C.I.A documents in history,” totaling “several hundred million lines of computer code.”

Paste correspondent Walker Bragman gave an excellent look at the sad, sordid catalog of weird fetish-names the Agency has appended to mundane cracking programs. There is a fundamental divide in our society between the Listeners and the Listened To. Check out this revelation, which is the most classically dude thing ever:

A number of projects were named after whiskey brands. Some were high-end single malt scotches, such as Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Others were from more pedestrian labels, such as Wild Turkey, which was described by its programmers, in mock dictionary style, as “(n.) A animal of the avian variety that has not been domesticated. Also a type of alcohol with a high proof (151).”

My favorite description comes courtesy of the AP:

The files include comments by CIA hackers boasting in slang language of their prowess: “You know we got the dankest Trojans and collection tools,” one reads.

That’s a line I could have written.

Put all this aside. What the leak amounts to is a tool catalog. Right now, the wildest accusations of paranoiacs read like pizza roll instructions. Apple and Android are now open doors to the busy fingers of the state. Big-deal encryption tech (including Signal and Whatsapp, which I have on my phone) are useless, since the Listening class can access the goods before the curtain of encryption falls. To quote the defenders of Berlin in 1945, “Wow, this is a mess, isn’t it?”

We got a taste of the NSA’s unique depravities back in 2013. But if the data that WikiLeaks has released is true, then the CIA has the power to hack into American citizens’ computers, phones, Skype, wireless, Smart TVs, and God knows what else. This is both troubling and unsurprising—that it does not truly, honestly shock us is the most unpleasant part of all.

I wish I could say that the CIA documents suggest a world which is alien to American life. That the spying of our own domestic agencies is odd and new, and a strange premise to sink our teeth into: Our government has the capability to spy on us? But of course we knew this already.

The common response to WikiLeaks is probably: well, hardly a bombshell, dur, also btw water is wet, sarcasm is power, Meryl Streep is a national treasure. But this should be startling. We ought to be shocked. Like the dominance of the New England Patriots or the outsized prominence of Chelsea Clinton, this is not something we should be used to.

In this moment, there is the temptation to put the Agency’s malfeasance aside, and say “Huh, how ‘bout that.” And we all know the reason why.

There is a wide coalition fighting Trump. One of the members of that group is the deep state. Ordinary people usually cite the CIA’s opposition to the President with pride. This is extremely odd. The implication seems to be that the cluster of intelligence agencies which spy on other countries (and us) are some kind of allies to progressivism. Groupons for democracy, if you will. But I’m not so sure, as the teetotaler said to the woman who wanted him to swim a river of gin. The opponent of my opponent may be my ally, but it hardly makes them moral or cool bros. The CIA does not get a blank check—or any kind of check—when it does this:

The documents also include discussions about compromising some internet-connected televisions to turn them into listening posts. One document discusses hacking vehicle systems, indicating the CIA’s interest in hacking modern cars with sophisticated on-board computers.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it? Funny in the sense of laughing at a train-wreck, not funny in the sense of a talking dog, although both are holy in their own way. Technology is an edged tool, no matter who uses it, public or private. Silicon Valley celebrates “disruption” — a fancy name for what happens when new tech decides to parasitically prey on people’s livelihood.

Mention this kind of disruption to the press and the result is honest-to-God embarrassing: journalists ooh and aaah like a horde of children watching a circus fire. But when the government does it, when Johnny Federal uses technology to disrupt, the result is plain old-fashioned sneaking, and we’re horrified — like a horde of children caught inside a circus fire. Perhaps any concentration of power using technology to mess with people is a bad idea?

Vault 7 doesn’t prove that the government used any of these tools to spy on us, but we know the habits of the Agency.


As David P. Hadley wrote in a 2013 issue of Origins, shortly after the Snowden revelations came to light:

Domestic surveillance intended to protect American citizens has been a part of the fabric of American life for more than a hundred years. Yet, the massive NSA intelligence-gathering programs revealed by Snowden are unprecedented in their sheer scale, their advanced technologies, and in the legal foundation that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court offered them.

Our government has always been friendly to spying on its citizens. After 9/11, this went through the roof. And it’s a bipartisan effort. As the Center for Foreign Relations puts it:

In 2005, the Bush administration came under fire from Democrats and activist groups after press reports disclosed the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. In 2013, the Obama administration similarly attracted criticism from watchdog groups upon leaks related to its far-reaching domestic surveillance activities under the NSA.

This is still the case. Hadley quotes the Church Committee of the Seventies, which stated that the power of the National Security Agency (NSA) “to violate the privacy of American citizens is unmatched by any other intelligence agency,” especially now, given the wide availability of potent tools of every kind. The Church Committee sought to shed light on the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other intelligence groups. It was the first big blow against the agencies, but unfortunately, other warnings have been required since the days of Church.

The famous 215 program delved deep into American life, and supped up metadata of every flavor from various companies.

As ProPublica reminded us, back in 2013,

The NSA intercepts huge amounts of raw data, and stores billions of communication records per day in its databases. Using the NSA’s XKEYSCORE software, analysts can see “nearly everything a user does on the Internet” including emails, social media posts, web sites you visit, addresses typed into Google Maps, files sent, and more. Currently the NSA is only authorized to intercept Internet communications with at least one end outside the U.S., though the domestic collection program used to be broader. But because there is no fully reliable automatic way to separate domestic from international communications, this program also captures some amount of U.S. citizens’ purely domestic Internet activity, such as emails, social media posts, instant messages, the sites you visit and online purchases you make.

Bush signed the Protect American Act of 2007, giving his Administration a temporary power to approve and direct international surveillance: no warrant required, just a reasonable belief. This decision-making capacity had previously belonged to the courts. And who decides if the belief is reasonable? The Administration. And when that measure ceased in 2008, a new law, the FISA Amendment Act, which then-Senator Obama voted for, allowed for more of the same. And tell me, if you will, who reauthorized this law in December of 2012? Why, none other but then-President Obama himself. In August 2013, Obama allowed Manning to go to prison.

I am told that H.R. 5949, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012, which extends Title VII of FISA, will legally endure until December 31, 2017. I am completely convinced that President Trump, or whoever is sitting behind his desk then, will sign the Reauthorization back into circulation. Who says double-sided effort is dead?


What amazes, what boggles the mind and twists the heart, is that these intelligence agencies float through the Republic like ghosts—catching on nothing, unstoppable, ungraspable. They get in trouble, unload sweaty apologies, and vanish like so much dog song in the wind. How many times has it happened now? Do you remember?

See them spying on Americans, and people shrug their shoulders: Eh, we weren’t expecting much else. Seems like something they’d do. Reveal they’re everywhere they shouldn’t be, and the government gives a nice, pat reply about purity and how in an age of terror, we shouldn’t have scruples. But we should. We should care about this. We should care that spying on ordinary people is normalized, just as much as we fear the ordinarification of Donald J. Trump.

There should not be a Platonic model of our long-term guest, Mr. All-Seeing, All-Knowing Government Eye. He’s not Norm. He’s not Kramer. He’s not a lovable next-door neighbor. We shouldn’t be expecting to see the All-Seeing All-Knowing Government Eye. We shouldn’t be jaded and know-it-all when news leaks about a government body spying on us. Constitutional rhetoric is regularly deployed by fluoride-fearing senatorial loons, but the National Charter is there for everybody. Omnipresent domestic surveillance is bad, and the people who do it ought to feel bad. When the All-Seeing, All-Knowing Government Eye makes excuses, we need to call them out. If it ends in shirtless, weeping brawls, so much the better for the future of democracy.

The ubiquitous phone-tapper should not be a recurring character in our lives. The phone-tapper and what he does is not normal. This. Is. Not. Healthy. We’re only used to the idea of the Listening Government because we’ve been living under its shadow since the Seventies. All those reservations you have about spying, listen to them. They’re real. Privacy is not an outmoded notion. This problem only goes away when The People are doing most of the watching.

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