Human Rights

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 weekchallenging 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.

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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 Postreported that the vast majority of Internet communications the NSA collects is from ordinary people, including Americans.

3. NSA spying on individuals. The NSA’s collection of Internet and phone data is indiscriminate. It sweeps up the data of millions of people in what it claims is a search for clues to disrupt terrorist attacks.

But the NSA can also directly target individual Americans for surveillance--and it has, as a report in The Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain revealed in July. The Intercept reported that five Muslim-American leaders, including civil rights activists and lawyers, were directly monitored by the NSA. It’s unclear what court authority the NSA was operating under. Government officials have reportedly said at least one of the five Muslim-Americans was spied on without a warrant.

4. Blanket law enforcement spying on Muslims. The NSA is not alone in targeting individuals who are seemingly spied on only because they are Muslim. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York Police Department also engage in spying on whole Muslim communities.

In 2012, the ACLU revealed that the San Francisco FBI was using a community “outreach” program to collect and store data on Muslims. FBI agents traveled to mosques to ostensibly talk about issues like hate crimes. But the agency also collected information on Muslims’ religious beliefs, travel, location of mosques and more. The collected data was disseminated to other law enforcement agencies.

And since September 11, the NYPD has engaged in its own blanket spy program targeting Muslims. The Intelligence Division’s Demographics Unit, which was shut down this year, sent plainclothes officers into Muslim businesses and eavesdropped on conversations, putting those in police files. These officers also “mapped” the Muslim community, listing where all Muslim-owned businesses are.

The NYPD continues to use informants to spy on the Muslim community. NYPD informants have infiltrated mosques, student groups and more, collecting information on many innocent people.

5. GPS tracking. Recent years have seen law enforcement increasingly turn to global positioning systems. The police use GPS tools like trackers to record suspects’ movements. Law enforcement can also track a person by obtaining cell phone location data.

Before a recent court decision, the police were placing GPS trackers without a warrant approved by a judge. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement installation of a tracking device targeting a drug dealer was unconstitutional, but they left the door open as to whether the police needed a warrant to use the GPS device. But in October 2013, an appeals court ruled that the police do need to obtain a warrant to place a GPS tracker on a suspect.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.