Terrorists playing online video games to confound the enemy? Sounds like a modern Get Smart episode, and a far-fetched one at that.
But there it was on the front page last week as yet another spying revelation from former NSA contractor turned whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The secret documents showed that America's masters of spycraft thought it possible that terrorists were training and communicating while hiding behind avatars in popular virtual games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. This prompted spies with the CIA, FBI and Pentagon to infiltrate the world of online gaming in such ridiculous numbers that a group had to be assigned to make sure the spooks weren't colliding with one another.
The effort was a bust. Nothing came of it except to underscore the bloated surveillance state the United States has created.
America's mass-spying operations are operating to the limits of available collection and storage technology, largely with no independent oversight or public accountability. And while foreign data is the focus, Americans shouldn't feel shielded. U.S. data often pass through foreign servers, which means millions of innocent Americans are having their private communications collected.
To get a sense of the scale, here are some of the surveillance programs revealed so far:
Cellphone Location Tracking:
The National Security Agency is sweeping up nearly 5 billion records per day in an effort to track how people move about anywhere in the world and with whom they come into contact. Americans are not targeted but substantial amounts of domestic cellphone data does get collected incidentally. The U.S. government is following people into doctors' appointments, private business meetings and homes.
Tech Company Data Center Infiltration:
The NSA has broken into Google and Yahoo networks and copies data that flows along overseas fiber-optic cables. This includes not only the "metadata," such as who sent and received e-mails, but also the message's content. The program, known as MUSCULAR, is a joint operation with British intelligence. The backdoor spying so infuriated the nation's tech giants that eight prominent companies publicly demanded new limits on government surveillance and some already have started beefing up encryption.
Front door Access to Tech Company Data:
One reason Google and Yahoo might be fuming is that they and at least seven other popular Internet services readily cooperate with the NSA by handing over huge amounts of online communications when ordered. Under this program, known as PRISM, the NSA uses search queries with at least a 51 percent confidence that the target is foreign, meaning American communications often get accidentally caught in the net.
Harvesting E-mail Address Books:
The NSA is scooping up contact lists from personal e-mail accounts on a planetary scale. Estimates are that the NSA is taking in 250 million digital address books and "buddy lists" annually around the world, including those of many Americans. The NSA claims that because the collection points are overseas this is not an illegal operation, as it would be were collections occurring on American soil. Still, millions of American contacts are likely gathered annually, a figure two senior intelligence officials did not dispute, according to the Washington Post.
Scooping up U.S. Telephone Metadata:
In June it was discovered that the NSA had been collecting in bulk American phone calling data from Verizon customers. The information handed over to the government includes the phone numbers of both parties, the location, time and duration of the call. Since then, it was learned that the program has been operational for years and involves nearly all U.S. call records.
America's surveillance state is a giant maw on track to gather every conceivable bit of electronically stored information. This should not make you feel safer. In the wrong hands it will destroy citizen dissent. It has already obliterated privacy.
President Barack Obama is making noises about imposing "self-restraint" on the NSA and an advisory committee is making recommendations on new curbs, but it isn't clear it will be enough to stop the juggernaut. Strong domestic and international law protecting privacy is what is needed. Like the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, just because we have the technology, doesn't mean we should deploy it.