In all that is the “Meh” of the revelations of the extent of NSA monitoring domestic communications, here is an analogy to help better understand what it is that we are dismissing.
The NSA is not engaging in direct action, where active monitoring and interception of communications is done. Whew! But what is it that they are doing? Our understanding of the space that is cyber space is giving society a bit of a conceptual block. To resolve this understanding of the problem we will use analogy. We are going to transform cyberspace into the real world of three dimensions. Here, the geeks running the NSA data centers are the beat cops, the sort we see driving around town.
Direct action in the real world consists of a police tail of our every movement, tracking our location, e.g GPS tracking. The Supreme Court ruled recently that government knowledge of this requires a warrant (here the cops put a GPS tracker on a bad guy without a warrant) and the SCOTUS said the police should have first obtained a warrant, because such detailed knowledge of a citizen’s location history infringes their constitutional rights. Keep in mind, the police were tracking a criminal suspect.
In the cyber world, the NSA put beat cops on every intersection of every street and alley in and out of the country. Each of these beat cops track every license plate (each car is a packet of information) going by their corner, they know the origin, the destination, and license plate of every car that goes by them. In effect, each of the cars as it passes the cop tells them all of this information en-route. This is like your car navigation system telling the police the final destination as well as any planned stops. These cops record all of this information. In a way it is even more effective form of surveillance because it is everyone and it creates an entire social history. So say for example we have something happen, this is a hypothetical situation. Where this guy and his brother blow up some backpacks. Let’s say this gets national attention, well, in rides the NSA and every suspect, and I mean every suspect that you could even think of, even those with no link to this case has the last 5-years of the entirety of their online presence examined almost instantly. A real time dragnet of what was probably several hundred thousands of people. This allows them to narrow down the suspect list to maybe tens of people. All of this is done without a warrant, or with a perfunctory FISA ruling authorizing the search of several hundreds of thousands of people.
Aside: Smart phones track periodic GPS position. In actuality not only is your entire online record held by our government, so too is your entire track history of that smartphone that doesn’t ever leave your pocket. These locations are date time stamped and can be queried through a database search for ones with similar criteria. Thus it is possible to know even who was with you and where they went and what they talked about. This is the “metadata” that is recorded.
This is the intent of PRISM–it’s raison d’etre. It is to keep us safe. I am curious as to why this was not disclosed after the Boston bombing. The speed and surety of government action in that time was unreal. Where did they get such accurate information so quickly? The police and other government agencies are competent, but not that competent. Part of me wonders if this little nugget is buried in that treasure trove of information that Edward Snowden possesses.
If the government can’t track criminals without a warrant, they can track the comings and goings of every citizen everywhere regardless of if they are even a criminal suspect. Apparently, you have to now break the law in order to be afforded constitutional protection.
By not engaging in direct action against specific targets the NSA monitors and records everything off of the hardware that makes up our information highways. Like the beat cop in the analogy they record everything, the comings and goings of everyone everywhere. If we do nothing wrong the cops are still watching our every move. If we ire them they can watch even as we type our emails or save our word documents or put something in the cloud. There is no privacy from the ever watchful Eye of Sauron.