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The Latest Snowden Leaks Show That NSA Surveillance Gets Extremely Personal

Baby pictures and explicit webcam shots are among the
Photo by Thierry Ehrmann

We have known since Edward Snowden's first leaks came to light more than a year ago that NSA surveillance practices rely upon dragnet spying — the sort of programs that sweep in communications data of many thousands of ordinary phone and Internet users who have never been suspected of being terrorists. This is the backbone of the NSA story as it has played out so far: Surveillance is totalized, not targeted.


The newest revelations, published in a Washington Post investigation Sunday, flesh out what dragnet surveillance really means. And it's personal.

The Post noted the data collections hoarded by the NSA "have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality…. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless." Included in the quotidian details swept into NSA data hoards are baby pictures, sexually explicit images from webcams, and personal medical records. Quite simply, the NSA has access to the fabric of the daily lives of Americans and non-Americans alike. Nine out of 10 individuals surveilled by the spy agency are not terrorist targets.

The fabric of our daily lives is the stuff of government surveillance.

Government officials are already on the defensive regarding the latest leaks. They have stated that some accidental collection of innocent data is necessary and unavoidable when seeking terrorist targets. The fact remains, however, that the majority of NSA surveillance involves non-targets. It's worth noting, too, that officials have largely been silent about what exactly constitutes a valid NSA target, since the surveillance of non-targets has produced so much outrage. But if we have learned anything from US drone wars, the determinations of targets — of imminent threats — are often dangerously broad and loose. The question of who becomes an NSA target, seems moot while the surveillance of non-targets looms large as the abrogation du jour of government activity.


As the Post reported on the details of NSA collections, "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 or striking risqué poses in shorts and bikini tops."

In providing details on this sort of content, the new Snowden revelations should help drive home the depth and breadth of mass surveillance and its insidious creep into the daily lives of Internet users. Not only are hundreds of thousands of non-targets' communications swept up in NSA dragnets, but this data is stored.

Snowden himself stressed the danger of this to the Post: "Even if one could conceivably justify the initial, inadvertent interception of baby pictures and love letters of innocent bystanders, their continued storage in government databases is both troubling and dangerous. Who knows how that information will be used in the future?"

A school child's academic record, a sexy selfie — these items move the fact of NSA spycraft from the abstract to the real. In official parlance, this data is "incidentally" collected, and there are some policy efforts to "minimize" agents' access to non-target data, especially that which belongs to Americans. But the point stands that the fabric of our daily lives is the stuff of government surveillance.

For the NSA, the data of non-targets may be "incidental." However, "incidental" does not mean benign. A state of affairs in which the majority of government surveillance that operates on a vast scale gathers information on ordinary citizens at home and abroad is a state of control. Your daily life may not be the target of NSA surveillance, but it is the object of it nonetheless — a fact that the government calls both "incidental" and "necessary."

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Photo via Flickr