Any student of human nature understands that when you put a powerful tool in human hands and promise that the tool will only be used against the most extreme threats and direst enemies, that promise of limits will inevitably prove to be an empty one. There’s always mission creep. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Perhaps broad data collection is only supposed to be used against violence-plotting foreigners-and-terrorists, but those limits are not realistic. Human nature and mission creep guarantee that if it’s possible to know everybody’s creepy porn-watching habits, the surveillance state will take care to know them. Nor will that state hesitate to use that knowledge against anybody who opposes it, even if that opposition takes no form more dangerous than posting political speech to YouTube.
All this we knew even before Edward Snowden pulled the scab off the festering wound on the body of democracy that our “homeland” security apparatus has become in the last dozen years. We learned these lessons from J. Edgar Hoover, before I was born, back when life happened in black and white. We learned them a long time ago, and we learned them well.
But now? Now we know more specifics. Now, thanks to an article by Glen Greenwald and others in The Huffington Post, we have details of how the NSA tracked the porn-viewing habits and other “personal vulnerabilities” of people (including US people) whose only crime was being identified by NSA as “radicalizers”. This appears to have meant that they advocated their political and religious views on YouTube, which you or I might understandably view as protected political speech.
Here’s how it went down:
The National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches, according to a top-secret NSA document. The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority.
Note that the six individuals in the document are “exemplars” — case studies if you will — and not the only six people having their porn visits tracked. NSA presumably chose the most unsympathetic “exemplars” for its self-congratulatory internal documentation. Don’t assume that this porn-surveillance program is limited to Muslims.
None of the six individuals targeted by the NSA is accused in the document of being involved in terror plots. The agency believes they all currently reside outside the United States. It identifies one of them, however, as a “U.S. person,” which means he is either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.
Once again, nothing in the document suggests that these are the only “six individuals targeted by the NSA”. These are six examples, the six most dangerous-sounding radicals the NSA could find in its database when it went to write a document justifying its porn-snooping program to itself.
NSA is forthright that it is collecting information about online porn use in order to embarrass and discredit these “radicalizers”:
According to the document, the NSA believes that exploiting electronic surveillance to publicly reveal online sexual activities can make it harder for these “radicalizers” to maintain their credibility. “Focusing on access reveals potential vulnerabilities that could be even more effectively exploited when used in combination with vulnerabilities of character or credibility, or both, of the message in order to shape the perception of the messenger as well as that of his followers,” the document argues.
The NSA seems not even to have considered whether it might be illegal to snoop after the porn habits of US persons in order to chill or discredit their political speech. As the article puts it:
There is also no discussion in the document of any legal or ethical constraints on exploiting electronic surveillance in this manner.
Nor am I the only one who sees the parallels to the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover:
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.”
Most of us, I think, want privacy in our porn habits for reasons of personal comfort and convenience. We’d prefer that our family members and coworkers and the others in our immediate personal spheres not know the intimate details of our erotic inner lives, but for most of us, this is a preference aimed at avoiding the awkwardness that arises from “TMI” moments. We assume that nobody in officialdom really gives much of a shit about our porn interests, so it’s not a day-to-day problem that we mostly surf our porn on an internet that everyone now understands has been utterly pwned by the surveillance state.
And, perhaps, for most people, that’s rational enough. But everybody has opinions, and now we’ve learned what only the paranoid of long memory knew before: if your opinions are unpopular enough with the folks in charge, and if you express them with uncommon clarity and vigor on YouTube or anywhere else, suddenly the folks in charge might come to care about your porn. Not because it’s porn, but because it might be embarrassing to you. Now, suddenly, your porn has become a lever to be used against you; and discovering and using those levers is the chief business of the powerful.
Yes, we already knew all this in the abstract. Now, it’s made concrete by documentary evidence. Along with everything else they track in their bulk data collections, the NSA is in fact tracking your porn habits. Those porn habits go into the big database in Utah along with everything else, to be pulled out and used against you when and if you’re ever officially determined to be too good at expressing political opinions that discomfit the powerful. You radicalizer. Go, you.
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