The initial logo of the Information Awareness Office of the Pentagon was an all-seeing eye fixed on the world. The office's purpose was to fight terrorism by creating and integrating technologies that would allow for the "total information awareness" of all electronic data generated domestically. That data would include Americans' personal information in areas such as finances, travel and communications. It would then be sifted to find suspicious patterns.
The program never got off the ground. Despite the freshness of the 9/11 attacks, the specter of such mass surveillance of Americans led to a bipartisan backlash in Congress. To the relief of many, the spying program was defunded in 2003. Or so we thought.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported the data-mining effort was merely shifted to the National Security Agency, a sprawling yet highly secret part of the federal government whose mission is to spy internationally.
According to the Journal, the spy agency now monitors "huge volumes of records of domestic e-mails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records." This information is analyzed by computer programs to look for anomalous patterns that could be used for terrorism leads. Apparently, none of it is done with a court order or judicial oversight.
Though the agency says it acts within the law, the report says a number of NSA employees have raised concerns that the agency is reaching beyond its legal authority by engaging in domestic surveillance. The Journal, quoting an unnamed official, estimates that the budget for the data-sifting effort is more than $1-billion.
What the agency is reportedly trawling through is not the content of e-mails but the transactional data, which can be nearly as personal and revelatory. That would include things such as the names of e-mail recipients and the subject lines, Web searches and sites visited, telephone activity including cell phone locations, travel itineraries and other details that expose a great deal about someone's private life.
Many of the databases used by the NSA were built by other federal agencies, including the Treasury Department's database of money transfers. The NSA is ostensibly using these government repositories as well as those from private companies, including the telecoms, in order to build a system that essentially looks at those moves Americans make that can leave an electronic footprint.
If the NSA is engaged in dragnet-type searches, looking for needles in haystacks by violating the privacy of millions of Americans, then Congress needs to intervene, just as it did to shut down the Pentagon program. A surveillance society where everyone is tracked is not an America we recognize. Our civil liberties should not be so easily violated.