Jun 10, 2013

What Does It Cost to Spy on Everyone? 80 Billion

If you're not angry about your government tracking you, and keeping tabs on who you're talking to and where you're standing when you're talking to them... how about this...?

The US spends at least $80 Billion a year on intelligence alone, which is more than the defense budgets of all but a handful of countries.

There are about 854,000 US civil servants, military personnel and private contractors who go to the office every day to work in high-security Intelligence Work. Washington Post’s 2011 “Top Secret America” report. Up to 55,000 of these work for the National Security Agency, the vast eavesdropping centre that collects “metadata” on billions of US domestic telephone calls. Most are data analysts. They're in Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC, and they wipe their brow as they crunch America’s vast data-intelligence complex. We've come a long way from a tapped phone in the Cold War.

Today algorithmic search engines can sift through billions of phone records a minute. 

Remember when Ike warned, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

“The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

The CIA and FBI were tapping phones left and right: J. Edgar even tapped JFK's line. It took Watergate and the Church committee hearings, to put down legislation on these two agencies - and even banned foreign assassinations. Court orders would be required to tap anyone’s phone. The Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens freedom from arbitrary government search and seizure, was updated to the age of the telephone. And there the laws remained until the terror attacks of 9/11. But, note, that's for the telephone. A land line. You still have one of those?

Then the all-too-fast-passed 2001 Patriot Act blew it all to hell. But it's okay, we need to be safe. Right? The quick to answer response was "Post 9/11!" and then spying wasn't just a necessary evil – spying could even save the entire world! 

“After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did what we so often do in this country,” said Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence. “The attitude was, if it is worth doing, it is probably worth overdoing.”

And boy howdy, did they. Need a refresher? How about you check out Frontline's SPYING ON THE HOME FRONT? And that aired before the NSA story exploded. (Poor choice of words there perhaps? I'm still trying to be an AP writer... I mean, why not? They're already tapping my phone and email.)

So the quick overview - if you haven't the time to watch a documentary right now... from 2001 and 2006, the NSA tapped thousands of US phones without a court order. Remember when the New York Times’ 2006 went bonkers about “warrantless wiretapping?” That caused an amendment to the Patriot Act - that required it to first get a judge’s approval. Nobody thought it could cover the “metadata” of billions of calls. See the loophole? Google and Verizon are apparently branches of the government.

Okay, theoretically if you matched a person's phone records - to the bad guys they're talking to, with how often they chat - then matched that with social security numbers, and their Facebook page or something - you'd have the bad guy. But in practice, there are legal constraints on what government analysts can do with the data. I guess it's more like your grocery store MegaSaver card? The same apparently applies to the email data that the NSA taps directly from nine internet companies, including Microsoft and Google – the so called Prism programme. No such limits exist on the FBI, which can monitor anyone it likes without a court approval by issuing so-called “national security letters”. 

No one, apparently, including those in charge of the US government’s dozens of different counter-intelligence operations, has a full grasp of its extent or implications. It's supposed to be impossible for any government official to read all the intelligence reports each agency produces every day from the billions of pieces of data caught in its dragnet Webb (get it?). Given how hard it was for the Internal Revenue Service, with some 106,000 employees, to monitor what a few agents were doing in a regional office in Ohio (Cough, cough)  it is almost reassuring that none of this data is adequately monitored. Much every other surveillance camera you walk past every day.

But that isn't going to stop this from getting any larger. 

Maybe, just maybe, the discussion of Liberty over the looming threat of a handful of terrorists will start. Maybe folks will read their service agreements a tad bit closer to see what exactly they're giving up to get that free cell phone and email account? Perhaps folks will demand their Congress Critter to repeal the Patriot Act? But then reality hits - and folks will just post a meme they saw on Blasphemes to their Facebook account. A couple of their friends will "Like" the cartoon, and they will have fought the good fight against tyranny.

All those "likes" will be noted by the 80 billion dollar juggernaut of Post 9/11 security theater complex servers. To be called up if you're ever caught throwing a cigarette butt on the ground. In Illinois, that's a $1,500 fine.

PS - I wonder what else we could do with 80 billion tax dollars? 

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