Yesterday we had a semi-false alarm from a woman that merely Googling “pressure cooker” could get you a visit from jackbooted thugs. I say “semi-false” because the tip-off didn’t from from the NSA searching through the Google search records of private Americans. It came because Michele Catalano’s husband or son (unclear which) was using a work computer to Google “pressure cooker bomb” and this was discovered by the employer and they sent a tip to the police. So, having the cops show up because of an Internet search is slightly Orwellian, but the fact that it was just the company monitoring their own hardware is a lot different than some kind of all-encompassing NSA dragnet.
Only, at more or less the same time, we had the Guardian publish more docs (originally from Snowden) documenting how there is, in fact, some kind of all-encompassing NSA dragnet. It’s called XKeyscore.
The devil is always in the details with these things, but there are some alarming details. First, no court order is required for a search. Second, the database that is searched is near real-time.
As a general rule, I think that you basically have to choose one of two mindsets about these things:
- It’s not a problem until someone actual abuses the system.
- It’s a problem as long as someone could abuse the system.
I tend to fall into the second camp, and so these revelations are disconcerting (to put it mildly). I think that, in principle, the idea of keeping huge amounts of data on American citizens (or non-citizens) could be defended if there were some really, really robust transparency measures and checks and balances. But the really big problem is that these are all secrete programs we weren’t supposed to know about. And if we can’t know about them, then I have a hard time trusting that they won’t inevitably be abused.