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An Open Letter to America (Bcc: Big Brother)

You. Yeah, you out there. How do you feel about having been swept up in the biggest criminal dragnet ever devised?

Our phone calls —along with those of as many as 200 million other Americans —are now on file with the federal government. No probable cause. No suspicion of guilt. No actionable intelligence. No reason at all except that the Feds want to keep tabs on you. And me.

Think about what your phone records tell them: Sure how many times you call your mother, your booty-call buddy, or your phone psychic. But they also document your comings and goings. When you were at work. When you were at home. Today’s cell phones have built-in GPS to enable emergency personnel to find you after a 911 call. Think that data isn’t being Hoovered up by the NSA? So the agency now knows about that day you called in sick from the golf course.

As described by USA Today, this is “the largest database ever assembled in the world.” But five years of phone records —even billions of numbers —doesn’t the largest database make. Consider Google’s data sets. Mad data. Most of the Internet in there. The story we’re getting from USA Today is merely the tip of an iceberg.

Alberto Gonzales has refused to say whether email is being monitored as part of this NSA dragnet. I’ve got essentially zero hope that it isn’t. And if the NSA would go that far beyond the letter of the law, why would it stop there? Bank records? Credit histories? Wal Mart purchases? Now we’re talking.

And you can understand why the government would want to collect this awesome amount of data. It endows the administration with awesome new powers: Pick up an edgy drifter from Tunisia. Crank his name through the database, and you can figure out in an instant —and without a warrant —his day-by-day location since 2001. You know whom he called. What he bought. What he searched for online. When he was past due on his credit card. If the speculation is correct, the NSA could even open up the sound files from each of his phone calls. You know what he plotted and with whom.

If the dude is a terrorist, maybe you’ve stopped a nefarious scheme to nuke North Dakota. But in a haystack this monumental you’re also going to find a lot of shit that looks like needles, but ain’t. The kind of false-positive information that could win our Tunisian friend a one-way ticket to Gitmo.

And beyond the false positives —just think of the potential for abuse. The mind reels about the misapplication of this tool in the hands of the FBI, the DEA, the IRS, or Karl Rove. Think: Nixon’s “Enemies List” to the millionth power.

The government has presumed that we are all —you, me, your grandmother —potential co-conspirators in a plot to destroy America. And the NSA has positioned itself as a Department of Pre-Crime, keeping tabs on each and every one of us to stop us before we act. We’ve been presumed guilty. We’ve all become “persons of interest.” And our fundamental Fourth Amendment rights have been voided.

What’s most frightening is that this was never debated. The Decider simply decided. The NSA implemented. And now, in a positively Soviet twist, the secret state agency has decided, on its own, that it is so secret that even the Justice Department can’t receive a security clearance to investigate.

This is madness. It’s profoundly un-American. And it must be checked. Lest our democracy become indistinguishable from China’s.


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