Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of published revelations about the National Security Agency’s sweeping spying activities, courtesy of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. So it is fitting that we discuss the latest disclosure about the government’s unconstitutional snooping and take stock of the attempts, such as they are, to rein in the nation’s intelligence agencies.
The NSA sometimes is jokingly referred to as the only government agency that listens. But its activities are not restricted to mere listening. We have already learned about how the NSA is gathering bulk collections of phone metadata records, email and pretty much any kind of electronic communication. So perhaps it should not have come as a shock when the New York Times reported recently that the NSA is collecting millions of photos of people from the Internet to use in conjunction with facial recognition programs.
Citing documents from 2011 obtained as part of the Snowden leaks, the Times noted that the “agency intercepts ‘millions of images per day’ — including about 55,000 ‘facial recognition-quality images’ — which translate into ‘tremendous untapped potential.’”
The article observed that the NSA has shifted its focus over the years from oral and written communications to facial images, fingerprints and other biometric information. Moreover, the NSA’s use of facial recognition technology “has accelerated” under the Obama administration.
If that was not chilling enough, “The agency has developed sophisticated ways to integrate facial recognition programs with a wide range of other databases. It intercepts video teleconferences to obtain facial imagery, gathers airline passenger data and collects photographs from national identity-card databases created by foreign countries, the documents show.”
Efforts to rein in abuses by the NSA and other intelligence agencies have been tepid, at best. President Obama decided to ignore the recommendations of his own independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which found that the NSA’s mass data collection program was illegal and should be abolished.
Congress recently passed H.R. 3361, the so-called USA FREEDOM Act, but the bill was so watered-down, especially by last-minute, closed-door negotiations between House leadership and the Obama administration, that many groups sponsoring the legislation dropped their endorsements, and many lawmakers who initially supported the measure ended up voting against it.
As the writers of the Fourth Amendment would attest, the British government did not have the right to conduct sweeping searches and seizures of American colonists’ things without cause, and our present government has no greater right to conduct ever more invasive searches of us or our possessions without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, regardless of the technology available to facilitate these violations.
Whether one views Edward Snowden as a hero or a traitor, much more important than his actions are the actions of our government, which are increasingly disturbing. Since politicians are wont to name a day or a month after everything under the sun, perhaps we should name June 5 as Keeping Them Honest Day, to remember the importance of privacy in a free society and an annual reminder to resist our government’s efforts to contravene our rights.
— From the Orange County Register