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The Red Wire: NSA Snoops On Porn Histories To Discredit Muslim Opponents

TAGs: bloomberg, Editorial, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Jason Kirk, national security agency, nsa, Ryan Gallagher, Ryan Grim, SEXINT, U.S Government

red-wire-nsa-snoops-on-porn-historiesThe National Security Agency has been granted unprecedented surveillance powers (and arrogated to itself even more) since the turn of the century, giving it nearly 24/7/365 access to the world’s electronic communications. According to a recent Huffington Post report by Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim, the agency has been using those powers to spy on the sexual habits of what it calls “radicalizers” with the goal of using the information to discredit them within extremist circles.

The document the journalists based their report on, part of the trove of documents Edward Snowden leaked earlier this year, lists six of these so-called radicalizers in a table that also includes their “presumed areas of authority, countries of resonance, and vulnerabilities” – with the “vulnerabilities” being paths to blackmail like “viewing sexually explicit material online” and “using sexually explicit persuasive language when communicating with inexperienced young girls.”

Other details that the NSA sees as possible exploits are less salacious but still potentially damaging within extremist Muslim circles were also included, though some of them seem like major stretches even for such a conservative culture. One target isn’t a fastidious fact-checker. Another commands big speaking fees. Yet another sometimes contradicts himself. These guys sound like they’d be right at home in Congress.

A reasonable person might assume that the targets of this NSA surveillance are actively involved in violence against the United States, but there isn’t much evidence to back up that assumption. The NSA’s own notes on the contacts of these supposed radicalizers reveal that they have minimal contact with individuals “known or suspected of being associated with terrorism” – seven out of 700 contacts in one case, and three out of 213 in another. Considering that the standard here isn’t proven terrorist affiliation but mere suspicion, the NSA documents would seem to support the conclusion of one study which noted that “certain ideas which are sometimes associated with terrorism were, in fact, held by large numbers of people who renounced terrorism.”

If such tactics were used only against the worst of the worst there might be some wiggle room in terms of justification. But the list of targets revealed in the NSA document is far from a collection of Stalins and Hitlers. They’re more on the level of a Fox News anchor: annoying, but not really a threat. Instead they’re people the NSA says are dangerous because they have the potential to spread what it considers dangerous ideas to others who might later become active terrorists. The key word here is “might”: the NSA’s defenders quoted in the Huffington Post article claim that there’s no reason to be worried about any abuse that might happen as a result of using such “SEXINT,” yet they have no problem turning the surveillance machine on people because they might convince somebody somewhere of an idea the U.S. government doesn’t like.

Never mind that convincing someone of an argument is many steps short of convincing them to take action based on that argument. Just the capability of spreading the idea is reason enough for NSA to start looking for ways to leverage the porn in a “radicalizer’s” browser history. And what works for porn could work for gambling, drinking, or any other activity with the potential to embarrass a target.

The use of SEXINT against overseas media celebrities, academics, and clerics is troubling enough, but one of the six targets listed in the NSA document is considered a “U.S. Person,” meaning either a citizen or a legal resident of the country. That opens up the possibility of such tactics being used against Americans, so long as the NSA can find a legal justification for the data collection that makes their use possible. The weapons and tactics our armies use abroad often come home to be used upon citizens of the United States, so it would be no big surprise to see an extension of our intelligence agencies’ tactics in a similar direction. And the damage that can be done to individuals abroad is nothing compared to what the feds can do at home, where constitutional protections are constantly being eroded in the name of law and order.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the ACLU, told Huffington Post, “The NSA says this personal information won’t be abused, but these documents show that the NSA probably defines ‘abuse’ very narrowly.” With this in mind, that there’s very little law regarding what can be done with such information acquired through spying should give even supporters of the current policies pause. As Jennifer Granick of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society put it in her write-up of SEXINT, “Policing based on a theory that people are radicalized through listening to fiery speeches and reading incendiary texts is so very dangerous. People have a right to believe what they believe.”

It’s a matter of record that during the J. Edgar Hoover era the U.S. government had an interest in the sexual lives of American citizens it considered subversive, as Greenwald et al. note in their report. We also know that the NSA routinely shares data it collects (licitly or illicitly) with the DEA and IRS for use in normal investigations, and those agencies in turn cover up where they got their evidence. (The document that Greenwald et al. cited in their Huffington Post report, which originated with the Director of National Security, was shared with recipients in a wide swath of the executive branch.) Put all of that together and you have the potential for a civil liberties disaster.

Armed with a loose interpretation of abuse, and the twin convictions that the government only goes after bad people and that the mere existence of unpopular threaten national security, agents would be free to pry into the lives of anyone who expressed an opinion that wasn’t pre-approved, searching for smut or anything remotely embarrassing. The sharing of such information would inevitably trickle far below the high standard of national security and would do nothing to lower the amount of terrorist violence in the world – but it would help keep the agency busy, and everyone knows they don’t have enough to do already.

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