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Don Reisinger

A View from Don Reisinger

Is the U.S. Government Really A Spy Machine?

A former NSA employee says the government collects all e-mails you write. But the government says it’s impossible. Who do you believe?

  • December 10, 2012

The role government plays in surveillance has long been a topic of debate. For years, we’ve heard stories of the U.S. government accessing data from citizens unbeknownst to them or those with whom they’re communicating. And time and again, privacy advocates argue that our rights are being violated.

In a recent interview with Russia Times (RT), a former National Security Agency code breaker William Binney threw some more gas on the fire by saying that the U.S. government is currently in possession of all e-mails sent between citizens, and houses them for use at a later time.

“The FBI has access to the data collected, which is basically the emails of virtually everybody in the country,” Binney said in the interview. “And the FBI has access to it. All the congressional members are on the surveillance too, no one is excluded.”

Binney went on to explain that without a warrant, the U.S. government is tapping into e-mail programs and storing all messages sent across the country. The information isn’t necessarily being filtered, but can be used in the event a person is being “targeted.”

“If they become a target for whatever reason – they are targeted by the government – the government can go in, or the FBI, or other agencies of the government, they can go into their database, pull all that data collected on them over the years, and we analyze it all,” Binney said. “So, we have to actively analyze everything they’ve done for the last 10 years at least.”

This is by no means the first time the issue of privacy has come up in the U.S. As citizens increasingly turn to the Web to share information about themselves, everything from their e-mails to their browsing history is potentially legal fodder for law-enforcement officials. And the idea that some of it might be put to use isn’t as far-fetched as some might want to believe.

In 2007, such a possibility took center stage, when a former AT&T technician, Mark Klein, claimed that he stumbled across documents that proved the National Security Agency (NSA) was tapping into AT&T’s network to access everything from call records to e-mails without a warrant.

In an editorial in The New York Times, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft argued that companies should not be held accountable for “legality,” since a company is being requested by the government to access certain information that would aid it in a classified intelligence activity.

“If the attorney general of the United States says that an intelligence-gathering operation has been determined to be lawful, a company should be able to rely on that determination,” Ashcroft argued.

However, it’s not clear that Ashcroft’s argument, which tries to defend plucking information on alleged suspects, can apply to what Binney is claiming.

In traditional law-enforcement activities, officials identify a suspect and then ask to access information to aid them in their investigation. What Binney claimed in a report in The New York Times earlier this year, is that the government is collecting information on everyone first, and then going back to it when an investigation is needed.

“So that now I can pull your entire life together from all those domains and map it out and show your entire life over time,” Binney said.

For its part, the U.S. government has never confirmed that it’s actually collecting all of that information. In a hearing before lawmakers earlier this year, NSA chief General Keith Alexander laughed off Binney’s claim, saying that the agency is “not authorized to do that, nor do we have the equipment in the United States to collect that kind of information.” 

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