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Government Has Created Massive Spy Apparatus: 6 Chilling Examples

Post-9/11 surveillance is out of control.

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Civil liberties advocates filed a lawsuit last week challenging the U.S. government’s national database of “suspicious activities,” one of a handful of ways the U.S. tracks its citizenry in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The surveillance in question is called the Suspicious Activity Reporting database, which is run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security. It has grown exponentially under the Bush and Obama administrations, and today there are over 20,000 “suspicious activity” reports. In practice, this means that many innocuous activities—like taking photographs in public or buying a large number of computers—are filed as suspicious, leading law enforcement to track people down and question them. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the database for opening “the door to racial profiling and other improper police behavior.”

Filed by the ACLU and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, the plaintiffs of the lawsuit are varied. One is James Prigoff, who was stopped by security guards after photographing a public work of art. The security guards reported his activity to a law enforcement agency, who then put him in the Suspicious Activity Reporting database. He was eventually questioned by a Joint Terrorism Task Force agent. Another is an Egyptian-American named Khaled Ibrahim who in 2011 tried to buy computers in bulk from Best Buy. Ibrahim was reported to the police and now his name is in the database.

The lawsuit states that it is far too easy for innocent people to be swept up in the database, and that the dissemination of information across the federal government runs counter to Justice Department standards.

The Suspicious Activity Reporting database is only one of the tools and data collections the U.S. government has amassed since 9/11. Muslims have borne the brunt of the surveillance, but many Americans of all stripes have been swept up in the terrorism hysteria. Here’s 5 other ways the U.S. government is spying on you.

1. Phone metadata. By now, Edward Snowden has become a household name, and that’s largely because of his major first disclosure: the National Security Agency’s mass collection of phone metadata. On June 6, 2013, Glenn Greenwald, then of the Guardian, reported that documents given to him by whistleblower Snowden revealed that the NSA was collecting all phone records of Verizon users.

Verizon handed over this data because of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order. Soon after this first disclosure, news outlets reported that other phone companies did the same, meaning that the metadata of millions of Americans was collected by the U.S. While collecting metadata does not mean the collection of the content of phone calls, metadata does tell a lot. As The Guardian explained, metadata includes the “date and time you called somebody or the location from which you last accessed your email.”

2. Internet data. NSA surveillance also sweeps up Internet data, keeping with the agency’s mission to “collect it all,” as one NSA official put it to the Washington Post. They collect Internet metadata and other forms of communications through a variety of programs.

One is PRISM, in which the NSA collects the communications of users of a variety of online services like Facebook, Google and Yahoo. Separately, from 2001-2010, the NSA collected e-mail metadata in bulk and stored it. While that program has ceased to exist, The Guardian has reported that “some collection of Americans' online records continues today.”

And in early July, the Washington Post reported that the vast majority of Internet communications the NSA collects is from ordinary people, including Americans.

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