Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The NSA's Porn Problem

It’s the fear of anyone who has ever indulged in a little “adult-themed” entertainment: other people finding out. Make those “other people” the government and society at large, and that fear becomes full blown despair. Today, The Huffington Post reminds us that this kind of thinking isn’t completely irrational.

A Dirty Practice

In the latest blow to the National Security Agency from whistleblower Edward Snowden’s  massive document disclosure, HuffPo reports that the government agency monitored the porn proclivities of Muslims who've used social media sites to express pro-terror messages. 

A classified document obtained by HuffPo indicates that the NSA “has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” 

The purported justification for the tracking of porn consumption is to expose the hypocrisy of potential influencers who preach one kind of morality but practice another. According to HuffPo, the NSA had in mind to exploit the targets’ watching smut online and using dirty language when chatting with “inexperienced young girls.”

HuffPo also reports that:
  • each of the “radicalizers,” one of whom is either a U.S. citizen or resident, currently lives outside the country
  • the NSA delved into the contact lists of the people in question
  • only one percent of the targets’ contacts are allegedly connected to extremist or militant groups
  • the NSA claims that two of the marks have “promot[ed] al Qaeda propaganda,” but acknowledges that three have “minimal terrorist contacts,” and
  • the secret document doesn’t accuse any of the six individuals of involvement in terror schemes.

Fourth Amendment, Anyone?

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans—and generally, noncitizen residents—against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the context of a typical criminal case, the government must have probable cause—an objectively reasonable belief that the person or place to be searched bears evidence of crime—in order to search people or their belongings. 

Monitoring someone’s phone calls or internet activity would normally constitute a search requiring probable cause. But in this post-Patriot Act world, with creative arguments by intelligence advocates set against the backdrop of national security, determining what’s legal can be murky.

The concern here isn’t so much that the NSA and other government agencies spy on legitimate threats, but that they collect the private information of law-abiders. The authors of the HuffPo article aptly remind us that the FBI has in the past gathered blackmail for use against political leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Before dismissing this kind of power abuse as a relic of the past, we should ask whether we trust law enforcement—on its own initiative, without judicial oversight—to draw the surveillance line. Because right now, that’s what it wants us to do.