The NSA Gets, Keeps, and Leaks the Private Data of Innocent Americans

Edward Snowden is now being accused of violating the privacy of ordinary Americans.

And it is true.

He turned over the personal data to the Washington Post.

Ben Wittes at the Lawfare blog writes his accusation, listing some examples of the private and embarrassing records that Edward Snowden is guilty of revealing. You will notice it isn’t just “metadata.”

Snowden here did not leak programmatic information about government activity. He leaked many tens of thousands of personal communications of a type that, in government hands, are rightly subject to strict controls. They are subject to strict controls precisely so that the woman in lingerie, the kid beaming before a mosque, the men showing off their physiques, and the woman whose love letters have to be collected because her boyfriend is off looking to join the Taliban don’t have to pay an unnecessarily high privacy price. Yes, the Post has kept personal identifying details from the public, and that is laudable. But Snowden did not keep personal identifying details from the Post. He basically outed thousands of people—innocent and not—and left them to the tender mercies of journalists. This is itself a huge civil liberties violation.

He’s right. It is “a huge civil liberties violation.”

And as Conor Friedersdorf points out in the Atlantic, it proves the NSA needs to be prevented from such unconstitutional, criminal collections.

I never thought I’d see this day: The founder of Lawfare has finally declared that a national-security-state employee perpetrated a huge civil-liberties violation! Remember this if he ever again claims that NSA critics can’t point to a single serious abuse at the agency. Wittes himself now says there’s been a serious abuse.

The same logic applies to Keith Alexander, James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Stewart Baker, Edward Lucas, John Schindler, and every other anti-Snowden NSA defender. So long as they insist that Snowden is a narcissistic criminal and possible traitor, they have no choice but to admit that the NSA collected and stored intimate photos, emails, and chats belonging to totally innocent Americans and safeguarded them so poorly that a ne’er-do-well could copy them onto thumb drives. 

They have no choice but to admit that the NSA was so bad at judging who could be trusted with this sensitive data that a possible traitor could take it all to China and Russia. Yet these same people continue to insist that the NSA is deserving of our trust, that Americans should keep permitting it to collect and store massive amounts of sensitive data on innocents, and that adequate safeguards are in place to protect that data. To examine the entirety of their position is to see that it is farcical.

We know that the NSA’s security measures have been woefully inadequate because, otherwise, there would be no Snowden leaks in the first place. We also know that the government acknowledges this fact with their “closing the barn door after the horse is already gone” attempts to address “insider threats.”

If you think those attempts to beef up security are going to be adequate, then you have more faith in the Feds than I do.

But, really, I don’t care. For the government to collect private information from innocent Americans is a criminal act—a violation of the Constitution. Again, here is what the NSA has been doing, via the Atlantic:

The Washington Post’s latest article drawing on Snowden’s leaked cache of documents includes files “described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained” that “tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.”

The article goes on to describe how exactly the privacy of these innocents was violated. The NSA collected “medical records sent from one family member to another, résumés from job hunters and academic transcripts of schoolchildren. In one photo, a young girl in religious dress beams at a camera outside a mosque. Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers. In some photos, men show off their physiques. In others, women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam …” 

Have you ever emailed a photograph of your child in the bathtub, or yourself flexing for the camera or modeling lingerie? If so, it could be your photo in the Washington Post newsroom right now, where it may or may not be secure going forward. In one case, a woman whose private communications were collected by the NSA found herself contacted by a reporter who’d read her correspondence. 

The NSA is a criminal organization. Arrest and imprison them. Now.