Over the last seven months, the curtain has been ripped down around the most significant covert and pernicious mass spying operation on innocent people in history.

Thanks to documents provided to journalists by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, we now know that the United States government has taken unprecedented (and, according to two federal judges, unconstitutional) actions to invade our privacy and restrict our freedom.

We learned that the NSA collects a record of virtually every phone call in the United States – who people call, when, for how long and where they are when they send or receive a call.

We also learned that the agency has tapped the cables and infrastructure that make up the backbone of the Internet, allowing them access to everything that you do online, including sending email, browsing the Web, using social media and talking over Skype.

Information published just this week in German newspaper Der Spiegel adds to our knowledge of how the agency has compromised the hardware, software and encryption algorithms of a wide range of U.S. companies, with or without their cooperation, giving them back-door access to servers, routers, personal computers and smartphones. Apparently, they can take over a given iPhone with a 100 percent success rate, copying data, monitoring calls and turning the phone into a live microphone to monitor nearby conversations.

These vulnerabilities, which have gone intentionally unreported and unfixed, can be and have been found and exploited by hackers outside of the NSA. Even if you completely trust the U.S. government and all its employees and contractors, do you really want these capabilities in the hands of criminals or rival foreign intelligence agencies?


At some point in the last few years, the focus of our nation’s spying changed. Rather than looking for the bad guys and then collecting intelligence on them, the NSA began to collect intelligence on all of us and then examine it to see if we were bad.

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” a former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post about the thinking of NSA chief Keith Alexander.

Leaked documents also show that members of the agency know exactly how chilling and dystopian these activities are. One NSA powerpoint presentation even featured a series of slides referencing the novel “1984,” including photos of happy iPhone purchasers holding up their new devices with the caption “Who knew in 1984 that this would be Big Brother and the zombies would be paying customers?”

The public would never have known about these programs at all if it weren’t for the leaks. In March of last year, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked point-blank by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper lied and said “no.”

Member of Congress themselves might not have even known. According to Maine Sen. Susan Collins, she was never informed about the bulk collection of information on Americans, despite being the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee.

Unfortunately, the reaction to these revelations by the public and politicians alike has been disappointing. Many people have found the technical aspects of the spying too complex or its implications too troubling and have reacted with self-preserving apathy.


Many politicians, perhaps conscious of not seeming soft on national security, have attacked Snowden personally or have argued that the security ends have justified the mass surveillance means. Collins, now that she has been informed about the programs, has done both.

But we shouldn’t accept these reactions. Our world continues to become more connected, and the advent of wearable computers like Google Glass means we will soon be living in even more of a digital panopticon, with more avenues for indiscriminate surveillance.

I’m glad that Shenna Bellows, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, is running against Collins and has made our freedom from unwarranted surveillance a centerpiece of her campaign.

We need smart people in Congress who understand technology, who take the time to understand the intricacies of these issues and who stand up for our rights. Too many members of Congress wouldn’t know the difference between an onion router and an onion bagel until they had bit into one.

Bellows may not have much chance of beating Collins, a popular, powerful and well-financed incumbent, but if her run brings more attention to these abuses, it will be count as a victory for all of us.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:


Twitter: @miketipping

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