On the NSA’s Surveillance Program: The Brown, Muslim, South Asian Elephant In the Room–or On the Phone

A frequent response of those untroubled by the revelations of the NSA program is “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Perhaps we need to translate that phrase, along with the relative colorblindness through which the entire series of revelations has been scrutinized, as “If your last name isn’t Khan, and you have no family in Pakistan/India/Iran, etc., you have nothing to fear.”

The revelations of NSA’s collection of “metadata,” as cybersecurity expert Susan Landau explained on Democracy Now is, in fact, even more invasive than actual content collection. She gives an example of how that can be the case: Even if all the NSA does is trace the one or more calls from your home to your doctor on a day when you would normally be at work, followed by one or more calls from your phone that is now located at the doctor’s office to your family, that information strongly suggests that the content of the call was bad news.

Similarly then, if the NSA collects metadata of all calls and online traffic in the US, they are probably much less interested in an person living in New Paltz, NY who calls Barcelona 8 times a week than they are in biweekly calls from an Indo-Pak restaurant owner in Edison NJ to a “terrorist-heavy” locale in Pakistan—say Waziristan. Clearly, in both cases, the pattern reveals the obvious: that both the NY and NJ residents have some connection to folks in the receiving nation. But what does it tell the NSA about who they are? To judge from the NSA’s datamining project, the intensity of NSA surveillance is heavier in Pakistan than in Europe. Thus, even if the calls from New Paltz are to a terrorist cell in Barcelona, it seems more likely that the calls to Waziristan (say, to the restaurant owner’s mother and brother and his family) will be more suspicious—of course due to the US’s framing of where the War on Terror must be waged.  Still, the latter would be, as Marcy Wheeler discusses in a related issue, ‘false positives.’

What is the starting framework that informs the NSA to target your call? That folks with close/frequent connections to Pakistan should have their calls monitored? That these same folks have an increased likelihood of being terrorists/sympathizers? Or, alternately, that if one is an Iranian migrant, from a family that left sometime around the Revolution, yet retains close friends who work for the Iranian state (even as low-level civil servants), then their calls should be the subject of targeting, because as DiFi has now announced, Iran is a terrorist state?  Or, as DiFi has also stated, it allows the state to keep records of people who become terrorists later (a la Minority Report).

I can hear the liberals now: “Of course, there she goes, making it all about race again.” Um, no. The NSA is making it about race/religion/ethnicity –as these are uniquely combined in the conceptual category of ‘Muslim Terrorists.’ Other branches of the state have long established that terrorism is a unique category that, while defined race-neutrally as having to do with international or domestic political violence targeted against the US government or its citizens, is almost uniquely and singularly applied to Muslims. We’ve seen evidence of this at other levels of government, as in the case of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims—in NY, CT, PA, NJ and internationally. Most recently, we saw this assumption with the immediate rush to assume that a Saudi national that fled the Boston bomb blasts must have been the person who set them—before he was cleared the next day.

If this is the framework that underlies the massive dragnet, then I’m hardly the one making it about race. Meanwhile, as is so often the case, Marcy Wheeler and Rayne (writing at emptywheel.net) have each been presenting some of the most careful and detailed analysis of these programs.  While the PRISM program is limited to collecting data from non-U.S. persons (and what that means is still unclear: does US person include non-citizen residents from India/Pakistan/Iran, etc. residing legally?), as Rayne asks

Does this mean that all communications between individuals who do not have an Anglo-Saxon name are likely to be sniffed if not collected?

Does this sketchy “(foreign) + (less than 3 hops)” approach executed by humans explain known false-positives? Could the relationships between the false-positives be as tenuous as shopping at the same store? What happens in the case of targets possessing a highly common name like “Ahmed” — the equivalent of Smith in terms of frequency among Arabic surnames — in collection so large it could be called a dragnet?

As some have pointed out, some of these details are hardly new, although the names and scope of the program have changed. As far back as 2005 (yes, under an order signed by then-President Bush), USA Today was reporting details of the NSA’s data collection, warrantless wiretapping, and telecom companies turning over data to the feds. It’s also true that there was hullaballoo about it (though not as loud in mainstream media) by those who are labeled hardcore “privacy freaks,”—folks like the ACLU, etc.  At some level, we may not have heard that much ‘new’ information—but between Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill, and Glenn Greenwald, we now have unquestionable, tangible, proof that the intelligence dragnet has been extensive and long-standing even after Bush’s executive order was rescinded.

Ultimately, the political celebration of NSA’s surveillance programs appears to rest on the same old tired flackery parroted by Lindsay Graham: “I don’t care if the NSA collects my data.”  Of course, Graham doesn’t care. Of course, DiFi thinks NSA data collection is crucial to catching terrorists. Of course, white suburban soccer moms are more interested in the intrigue of Snowden’s (ex?)girlfriend. Why should they care? They don’t worry that they will awake some morning and find themselves on the wrong side of the state—and certainly not because ‘they’re not doing anything wrong,’ but rather because they’re not the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong family (Remember Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki’s death? “He should have been born to a far more responsible father”). But of course.

That’s why Lindsay Graham, DiFI and the white burbie housewives think that NSA surveillance is a great idea. They’re not politically vulnerable (okay, that’s an understatement). They’re officially in favor of the War on Terror. And certain under this Administration and the previous one, their calls to the doctor and to family (or even Graham’s hypothetical call to Waziristan) are not registering as the ‘suspicious’ activity that the NSA is looking for.

As I’ve said before, this all comes down to a familiar form of American privilege:

[T]he privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

The other side of the NSA leaks has to do with what we know or can infer about the profiles of people who get top-security clearance. If the NSA’s dragnet is designed to look for ‘suspicious’ activity, then besides being directed towards foreigners and foreign threats—it should also be looking for people like Snowden (of course I’m not endorsing this—just considering the logic of the hunt): seeming ‘one of us’ kinda guys: conservative, a believer in American ideals as decided and executed by the US government, a former troop, a “regular guy” with top national security clearance. Who, as it turns out, doesn’t like what he is coming to learn in the course of his work, and is beginning to take serious issue with the size and scope of the project. Except that all the national security surveillance in the world didn’t catch him before he flew to Hong Kong to meet with reporters and turn over evidence of these secret slides that document an out-of-control surveillance program. Whoops.

As Marcy Wheeler also points out, we need to question the success of such tracking programs if ‘success’ is defined as catching David Headley, suspected facilitator of the Mumbai attacks after 166 Indians are killed, or as Floyd Brown points out, catching Maj. Nidal Hassan after his killing rampage, etc., etc.

That again raises questions about whether the national security apparatus is working—or whether it merely is a foundational aspect of the ‘architecture of oppression,’ that Snowden refers to. But that will be the subject of another post.


A version of this piece was published at http://www.salon.com on June 14, 2013.


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

4 thoughts on “On the NSA’s Surveillance Program: The Brown, Muslim, South Asian Elephant In the Room–or On the Phone”

  1. “A frequent response of those untroubled by the revelations of the NSA program is ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.'”

    Well, Falguni, it is certainly a good idea to keep pointing out the flaw in this dismissive clausal notion of the expectations for individual privacy. Frankly, I find this rather banal acceptance of widespread and secretive government intrusion into private lives possibly the most alarming aspect of the rise and insitutionalization of the surveillance state.

    First, the response you cite was prevalent long before the NSA revelations. Seeking safety in numbers is an observable survival instinct at work, not just a theory. Despite all the ironies and paradoxes involved, all the clear and present dangers to democracy, it is by now nakedly obvious that vast swathes of the populace are willing to cede what’s left of their liberty for the mere promise of conditioned security. Indeed, you could argue that there is something like proud acquiescence in such concessions, even a perverse patriotism. Pavlov and Poe together, ringing bells, observing the rivers of salivation.

    But the second, even more alarming aspect of the dismissive attitude–indeed, its corollary–is that these same masses also likely believe that those individuals ho do something to protect their identities and privacy, say by making use of proxies or VPNs or the Bitcoins, must have something to hide; the presumption of innocent (or, at least, non-criminal) activity on the internet, for instance, becomes a burden the encryption user must bear as a result of actually hiding who they are; they become, by default, “persons of interest.”

    A third outcome to this voluntary suspension of self is that those who feel they have nothing to hide will feel morally sanctified to do as the security apparatus implicitly bids and keep tabs on “radical” privacy seekers. The state and the corporate database community will find subtle and un-subtle ways to prod “the community” into ruthlessly exposing what others are “hiding.” One imagines that this what happened with the “good” German populace under the Nazis, the Italian many under the Fascists, the Vichy faners and the ignorant Americans of the McCarthy era. We are just a couple “discoveries” of child porn on some encrypter’s hard drive before privacy protection by means of proxies or VPNs is criminalized. (Indeed, there is already a backdoor into Tor brought into play as a result of child porn fears.) When that happens, people will b pointing fingers in every direction, anxious to be saved.

    A fourth result of being so comprehensively exposed is, of course, there can be no freedom and no selfhood. Algorithms will provide the ego’s content.

    I wish that I could see a reason for some optimism, some sense that significant numbers of people are outraged and prepared to shout back at their captors, “we’re not going to take it anymore,” a la the movie Network, but I don’t see it. A couple dozen articulate and switched-on bloggers (like yourself, Falguni), along with their sizeable but still relatively limited commentariat, are unlikely to change the present condition, although one try anyway, of course.

    Sadly, one is forced to concede the possibilty that those who say they have nothing to hide well and truly have nothing to hide, downing fear-coated memes, and tropes, and jingoes as if they were the snap, crackle and pop of a functioning Republic. I am forced to wonder if Socrates’ pessimism following his suppressed dialectics with people was not well-founded; if like the tightwalking Zarathustra it’s alays too early in the marketplace to knock over money tables and talk about bridges to a higher humanity.

    1. Yes, I’ve felt rather pessimistic as well. But the disclosures are helpful in forcing a discussion among those who are on the fence about the surveillance state. I think it’s important to press the point that those who say they have nothing to hide are better understood as those who believe they have nothing to fear from the state or the public, regardless of whether they have secrets. Once upon a time, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner seemed to believe they were in this category as well.

      Funny you should mention Socrates; this week, I was thinking about his refusal to leave Athens or to remain silent, preferring to drink hemlock. If Snowden is a narcissist, then he’s part of a noble and worthy tradition. Although I find it rather funny that Snowden is being called a narcissist, when Lindsay Graham, DiFi, Clapper, and Obama, to name a few–really believe that that public is not entitled to know or have oversight of the decisions they make. Narcissists, indeed.

  2. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this thoughtful analysis. You raise a point that has, to my knowledge, not been formally brought into these debates before. We have heard arguments by those who note that they are the most likely to be unfairly the subject of surveillance and profiling — but to my knowledge have never been asked to consider the privilege of those who would never be likely to be subjected to that same degree of monitoring. It is, indeed, a type of privilege. It is the privilege of those who have never had to answer the question “What kind of name is that, anyway?” to which the only proper response is “It’s an American name, just like yours is.”

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