Hard numbers, chilling facts: What the government does with your data

The Brennan Center for Justice lays out what the NSA does with your data. The news is worse than you think

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So much for "we don't spy on innocent Americans." So much for "we're only doing this to fight terrorism." You can't find evidence of illegal activity without spying on a ton of perfectly legal activity. You can't claim to be fighting terrorism when you're mostly chasing down drug dealers.

The NSA has turned your data into a weapon -- used against you

The infographic made clear something that has been gnawing on my brain ever since the Snowden bombshells started detonating last May. This is not about keeping us safe from terrorism; this is about the modern police state using technology as its primary weapon. The NSA has become a de facto supercop -- which is most definitely not part of its charter.

I began to recount the various cyber takedowns that have been splashed across the news over the last few years. There was the prosecution of the Stratfor hack, the turning of Anonymous's Sabu into an FBI informant, the SWAT-style raid on Kim Dotcom and MegaUpload, the closure of the Silk Road black market. How many of these law enforcement actions got their start from data first intercepted by the NSA?

Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police do not have the right to go door to door with drug-sniffing dogs until they find one where marijuana is being grown. This is what the NSA has become: a drug-sniffing dog. Only in this case, it's sniffing millions of terabytes of Internet traffic and looking for any criminal activity, not just dope.

As Rachel Levinson-Waldman, primary author of the Brennan report, writes:

Of course, federal and state agencies must maintain databases to carry out legitimate governmental purposes... In addition, where law enforcement agencies have reasonable suspicion of possible criminal activity or intelligence components are acquiring information on foreign targets and activity, they must retain information to track investigations, carry out lawful intelligence functions, and ensure that innocent people are not repeatedly targeted.

History makes clear, however, that information gathered for any purpose may be misused. Across multiple administrations, individuals and groups have been targeted for their activism, and sensitive personal information has been exploited for both political and petty reasons. The combination of vastly increased collection of innocuous information about Americans, long-term retention of these materials, enhanced electronic accessibility to stored data, and expanded information-sharing exponentially increases the risk of misuse.

You might argue that this is a good thing, that the feds need all the help they can get in fighting crime. But it's not what the folks who started this wacky experiment in country-making 237 years ago had in mind. They lived through an era where any armed official could enter your home and haul you off for any reason. That's why we have the Fourth Amendment and concepts like probable cause and due process -- or, at least, we used to.

Should the spooks be allowed to play supercop? Post your thoughts below or email them here: cringe@infoworld.com. Just remember: Someone else may be listening.

This article, "Hard numbers, chilling facts: What the government does with your data," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, follow Cringely on Twitter, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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