National Security Letters and What You Have to Hide

In an article I wrote about TOR I mentioned that one of the reasons to use TOR is that you don't know what you have to hide. Things you do today, like reading certain materials, visiting certain websites, exchanging e-mails with certain persons could, in the future, prove to be enough to destroy your life. Just ask Muslims who made the mistake of visiting the wrong Mosques, giving money to the wrong charities or buying the wrong books. None of their actions were illegal or problematic before 9/11 but now those entirely innocent actions are being used to ruin their lives. So it is with justifiable fear that American citizens should read the Washington Post's article on the massive abuses the government has been making of National Security Letters (NSLs).

These letters, issued by the FBI without effective supervision by anyone (the Judiciary is not allowed to review the letters before being issued and, as the article details, Congress has ignored its over site duties) allow FBI agents to pull up just about any records they want on anyone they want without any reasonable justification. Ah, but even better yet, the FBI has also given itself the right to record all the information it finds, in its databases, forever.

Because it is a crime to ever even admit that you have been given a NSL we don't know just how wide the abuse is. But here's a case we do know of, the FBI used NSLs to pull up data on approximately 600,000 people who visited Las Vegas in a two week period in preparation for a supposed terrorist attack. But, to be clear, it's already well understood that such fishing expeditions are useless in actually finding terrorists (the bigger the mountain of data, the easier it is to hide), such searches are at best useful for finding out after the fact what might have happened. We also know that the FBI has issued at least 30,000 NSLs each of which can itself be used to generate enormous numbers of records. We also know that the FBI has failed to provide a single example of how those 30,000 NSLs made America any safer, even in private to the fully security cleared intelligence oversight committee.

The pattern is clear, the FBI wants to Hoover up as much data as it can in order to run 'link analysis'. The purpose of the NSLs is to pull up date like telephone records, cell phone records, e-mail records, website visits, Library books borrowed, items purchased etc. These are 'transaction' records and the FBI records them in its permanent database in order to try and draw connections between different people. Originally when records were pulled up for a purpose, if they turned out not to be useful, they were thrown away. But now the FBI keeps them forever so as to build up an enormous database that can be trivially used to connect anyone to anyone.

The end result is that if you ever come into contact with any person, library book, website, organization, anything, anywhere, ever that later turned out to be a problem then you should know that everything you hold dear is in direct danger. Just check out the stories of Muslims I linked to above whose only crime appears to be having attended the same Mosque as one of the bombers. Do you know who has attended every function, religious organization, private organization, e-mail list, or whatever you have been involved with and what crimes they may have or might in the future commit?

The only real hope to stop this insanity, to cause the records to be destroyed, to end the anti-American and unconstitutional NSLs is to throw out the Republicans wholesale and replace them with a different party that actually values American freedoms. Unfortunately I have no idea what that party would be. The Democrats voted just as enthusiastically for the Patriot Act (which broadened the scope of the NSLs) as did the Republicans and the Libertarians, well, they have lots of other issues.

In the meantime I'll keep contributing to the ACLU.

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