Congress put a big scare last week into the agency that frightens privacy advocates and U.S. enemies throughout the world – and sent up a shot heard everywhere that an infowar is breaking out that could have a far-reaching impact on people's lives.
Angered by revelations of the National Security Administration's vast telephone and email tracking apparatus, Congress fell just short of winning a vote to de-fund the spying program. But technology experts say the global reaction to the NSA's widespread tracking of people in the United States and abroad is likely to be the first of many battles over privacy and oversight as the government uses more invasive technology and new data scandals come to light.
"Technology is changing the capability of government agencies dramatically, and the law is not keeping up," says privacy advocate and security technology expert Bruce Schneier. "Things are being done in our name, with our funding, that we have no idea about. Secret courts are making secret rulings about secret laws. That cannot be good."
While the proposal failed in Congress, the near shutdown of the broadest individual surveillance ever by a government succeeded in elevating the clandestine NSA surveillance to a national debate. While the debate heats up, privacy experts say there will be many more cases spurring controversy in the future as the extent of data tracking becomes known.
The NSA surveillance is just one of a growing number of programs in which government is pressing forward with new technology to compile immense amounts of new data on individuals. In two recent developments, the Internal Revenue Service has vastly expanded its data mining of private financial transactions for tax enforcement. And trade reports said the CIA is spending $600 million to ramp up its cloud data network to capture vastly more information, the use of which remains classified. The CIA's mission ends at U.S. borders, but the data it will begin to use knows no boundaries.
The government began stepping up its surveillance of individuals here and abroad in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, as the Patriot Act eliminated some legal barriers on monitoring people and groups. The government gained more access to private data under measures following the financial crisis of 2008, which expanded the reach of the IRS to gather virtually all credit card and electronic transactions. Initially used for tax purposes, that data may also used by other branches of law enforcement in many cases.
The NSA's widespread snooping on individuals, disclosed when private contractor Edward Snowden left the country with four laptops of data downloaded from the agency, has turned two of the staunchest supporters of a stronger intelligence capability into critics. The two top members of the 9/11 Commission, Chairman Thomas Kean, ex-New Jersey governor, and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana Congressman, this week made a joint statement calling for a national debate on the NSA surveillance.
"Authorized and monitored surveillance is necessary," they said, but "It is the sheer magnitude of the [NSA] program and the lack of debate that worry us."
The NSA leaks are the first confirmation that the government was using sophisticated methods to track individuals. But there have been many hints that it is more widespread than people knew. "You are a walking sensor," said the CIA's chief technology officer Ira "Gus" Hunt at a tech industry conference in New York earlier this year. "You are aware of the fact that somebody can know where you are at all times, because you carry a mobile device, even if that mobile device is turned off," he said. "You know this, I hope? Yes? Well, you should."
Considering the ubiquity of cell phones, it's a big footprint, Hunt said. But with geolocators often embedded in cars, cameras, iPads, laptops, measuring devices, home appliances, automated toll booths, cash registers and store scanners, the data collection is even broader. Satellite and land-based cameras expand that footprint even further.