Echoes of Orwell: The laws aren't new, but the shock and awe are

Echoes of Orwell: The laws aren't new, but the shock and awe are

June 8th, 2013 in Opinion Times


• The Patriot Act was approved and advanced by the George W. Bush Administration and approved by Congress in 2001. It was reauthorized in 2006 and 2011.

• The National Security Administration was enabled by changes to U.S. surveillance law introduced by Bush and renewed under President Barack Obama in December 2012.

• The PRISM program was introduced to major Internet companies as follows: Microsoft, Sept. 11, 2007; Yahoo, March 12, 2008; Google, Jan. 14, 2009; Facebook, June 3, 2009; PalTalk, Dec. 7, 2009; YouTube, Sept. 24, 2010; Skype, Feb. 6, 2011; AOL -- March 31, 2011; Apple, October, 2012.

Sources: Slide posted in The Guardian on June 6, 2013, MSMBC

Wondering if federal agents are reading your secret emails to forbidden friends, or your Internet searches for how to beat taxes? Are you worried the deep health secrets you enter on Internet symptom programs will be cataloged? Do you have concerns that your texts to coworkers will be discovered?

Those are concerns and frustrations popping up all over the country as privacy concerns rise in the wake of news that the Patriot Act isn't as patriotic as it seemed when it was passed and implemented just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

Most people took George Bush and the Congress at their word that the ability to scoop data from the Internet for intelligence would apply only to terrorists outside our borders.

But if you listened and read the fine print, even then it was clear the new law and the rules that followed applied in the United States, too.

Nonetheless, it's tough to swallow that reality.

"It's shocking. We live our lives online now," said Dominic Rushe, the U.S. business correspondent for the Guardian, a news website headquartered in the United Kingdom. Rushe broke a story Thursday evening that not only is our government scooping up information from our phones, but a program known as PRISM also claims direct access to the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL.

The National Security Agency, commonly known as NSA, directly accesses those systems to collect search histories, email content, file transfers, live chats, videos and more. Yep. It's all in "the cloud," all right.

The scary truth is that no one should be shocked.

The NSA access was enabled by changes to U.S. surveillance law introduced under President George W. Bush and renewed under President Barack Obama in December 2012.

The operation of PRISM has been in effect since 2007, and adds to a growing privacy debate ignited by the Verizon revelation earlier Thursday that the government has been collecting telephone call data.

But the Internet surveillance, unlike the collection of those telephone and cell phone call records, can include the content of communications -- not just the metadata.

Though billed and intended to concentrate on communications traveling in and out of this country, the legislation, OK'd by almost all Congress members then and several times since, never limited the scope of the scooping, scouring and searching to just overseas messages.

"The program facilitates extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information. The law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the U.S., or those Americans whose communications include people outside the U.S. It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the U.S. being collected without warrants." Rushe states.

He said he wrote the story after he obtained and verified the authenticity of a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation, classified as top secret, with no distribution to foreign allies. The presentation was used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program.

According to one training slide, the PRISM program cost is $20 million a year.

Obama two weeks ago declared "all wars must end," and he said he could foresee a day when the struggle with terrorists would essentially come to a close.

But this disclosure of our mundane daily communications being opened like a book to bureaucrats is what the New York Times on Friday called a "potent reminder" that Obama continues to deploy many of the national security tools he inherited from his predecessor -- even as he tries to change the way the U.S. responds to terrorism.

On Friday, Obama insisted his administration has not become Big Brother.

"You can't have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said, stressing again and again that the lawmakers from both parties and federal judges were aware of the efforts. "You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society."

Well, this is not a fun society. In our courthouses and outside our gyms on big game nights we have metal detectors. On our work bulletin boards, we have memos saying our companies have the right to peep over our emails and listen in on our phone calls. On city streets, security cameras record our comings and goings as we do or don't speed.

Now we can feel assured we're spied on at home. How depressingly outrageous. How Orwellian.