"You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."—George Orwell, 1984
Supposedly the National Security Administration is going to stop collecting certain internet communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target.
Privacy advocates are hailing it as a major victory for Americans whose communications have been caught in the NSA's dragnet.
If this is a victory, it's a hollow victory.
Since its creation in 1952, when President Harry S. Truman issued a secret executive order establishing the NSA as the hub of the government's foreign intelligence activities, the agency has been covertly spying on Americans, listening in on their phone calls, reading their mail, and monitoring their communications.
For instance, under Project SHAMROCK, the NSA spied on telegrams to and from the U.S., as well as the correspondence of American citizens. Moreover, as the Saturday Evening Post reports, "Under Project MINARET, the NSA monitored the communications of civil rights leaders and opponents of the Vietnam War, including targets such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohammed Ali, Jane Fonda, and two active U.S. Senators. The NSA had launched this program in 1967 to monitor suspected terrorists and drug traffickers, but successive presidents used it to track all manner of political dissidents."
Not even the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the creation of the FISA Court, which was supposed to oversee and correct how intelligence information is collected and collated, managed to curtail the NSA's illegal activities.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush secretly authorized the NSA to conduct warrantless surveillance on Americans' phone calls and emails.
Nothing changed under Barack Obama. In fact, the violations worsened, with the NSA authorized to secretly collect internet and telephone data on millions of Americans, as well as on foreign governments.
It was only after whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations in 2013 that the American people fully understood the extent to which they had been betrayed once again.
What this brief history makes clear is that the NSA cannot be reformed.
This is an agency whose very existence—unaccountable and lacking any degree of transparency—flies in the face of the Constitution.
Despite the fact that its data snooping has been shown to be ineffective at detecting, let alone stopping, any actual terror attacks, the NSA has continued to operate largely in secret, carrying out warrantless mass surveillance on hundreds of millions of Americans' phone calls, emails, text messages and the like, beyond the scrutiny of most of Congress and the taxpayers who are forced to fund its multi-billion dollar secret black ops budget.
As long as the government is allowed to make a mockery of the law—be it the Constitution, the FISA law, or any other law intended to limit its reach and curtail its activities—and is permitted to operate behind closed doors, relaying on secret courts, secret budgets and secret interpretations of the laws of the land, there will be no reform.
Presidents, politicians, and court rulings have come and gone over the course of the NSA's 60-year history, but none of them have done much to put an end to the NSA's "technotyranny."
The beast has outgrown its chains. It will not be restrained.
Moreover, even if the NSA could be reformed, the problem of government surveillance goes far beyond the criminal activities of this one agency.
In fact, long before the NSA became the agency we loved to hate, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration were carrying out their own secret mass surveillance on an unsuspecting populace. Just about every branch of the government—from the Postal Service to the Treasury Department and every agency in between—now has its own surveillance sector, authorized to spy on the American people.
Then there are the fusion and counterterrorism centers that gather all of the data from the smaller government spies—the police, public health officials, transportation, etc.—and make it accessible for all those in power. And of course that doesn't even begin to touch on the complicity of the corporate sector, which buys and sells us from cradle to grave, until we have no more data left to mine.
Consider that on any given day, the average American going about his daily business will be monitored, surveilled, spied on and tracked in more than 20 different ways, by both government and corporate eyes and ears. A byproduct of this new age in which we live, whether you're walking through a store, driving your car, checking email, or talking to friends and family on the phone, you can be sure that some government agency, whether the NSA or some other entity, is listening in and tracking your behavior.