Editor's note: In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of the world he lives in. We hope it helps you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.
I follow Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden on Twitter. Greenwald, of course, is one of the journalists who in 2013 teamed up with Snowden, the leaker and/or whistleblower, to reveal secret details of the seemingly omniscient NSA operation that was collecting too much information on too many people without having to give much of a reason. I don't follow them because I find them delightful people or anything, but when they aren't breaking news stories about NSA surveillance, they're following other NSA coverage and tweeting about it. That's handy because left to my own devices, I probably wouldn't. The truth is, most of the time I simply do not give a shit about the NSA.
Sure, I can muster up the energy to care about the government's mass surveillance when I'm reading a news story about it, but once I click away, I immediately stop worrying and forget about it. It's kind of like how I'll be really pissed off at ExxonMobil for destroying the planet, and then see my fuel gauge hit empty and happily pull into the nearest gas station, whistling away as that very company gets 30 of my hard-earned dollars. In other words: the problems are abstract and far away, and right now, I've got shit to do.
But I know I should at least be a little worried about government spying, so I set out to figure out just how scared I should be.
"You're gonna have people saying 'It doesn't matter, I don't care,' and part of that is because there hasn't been up until now, a kind of smoking gun of political abuse," said Liza Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. But, Goitein added, "it would be sort of surprising if there weren't."
Of course, political abuse of government spying tactics has happened in the past. In the 1970s, the US Senate's Church Committee revealed that the federal intelligence apparatus was being used not just to track mobsters and the Ku Klux Klan, but also to harass the president's political enemies. At the time, the left was pretty pissed about this, and even arch-conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., expressed concern. Congress enacted some reform measures shortly after that, setting reasonable standards for what kind of information intelligence agencies could gather and when.
But those standards were completely obliterated after 9/11, Goitein said, leading to the troubling situation the US finds itself in now. "I wouldn't say to build a survivalist shelter," she told me, "but it's not a good thing."
The trouble is that while we know the government has vast spying powers, most of us don't have a good sense of what surveillance abuse actually looks like. Remember when, toward the end of The Dark Knight, Batman uses ill-gotten information about everyone in the world to stop a super-villain, and then felt bad and got rid of the system, we were all like, 'It's OK, That pretty much sums up my feelings about the NSA spying programs. Sure, the government has limitless access to our sexts, but the huge electronic fishnet that snatches up dick pics may have also picked up some emails that saved people's lives.
That's wrong for two reasons: For one, the NSA doesn't really have the godlike powers Batman used to stop The Joker. And for another, the NSA's mass surveillance has, in some ways, decreased our overall security.
"One thing the NSA is doing that people should be worried about," said Goitein, "is that the NSA has worked very hard to undermine encryption standards internationally, and to weaken them." In 2013, it was revealed that the NSA had considered strong encryption a "threat," and in a project called BULLRUN, set out to ensure that any international standard for information security was riddled with holes.
These are the very same encryption standards that are meant to protect us from information breaches, hackers from China and North Korea, and identity theft. So what does the NSA get out of weakening rules that are supposed to keep us more secure? Mostly—and this is a gross oversimplification—it gets to look at the phone and email behavior of foreigners who interact electronically with people in the US.
"It's no longer within their legal authority to collect Americans' phone records in bulk using foreign intelligence collection authority, or to collect in bulk other kinds of business records," Goitein explained, "but the NSA has many authorities it can operate under."
Here's an illustration of the theoretical limits on the NSA's power: I am in Mexico writing this. As an American citizen, right this moment, if I called someone in the US from a phone down here, the NSA ostensibly wouldn't have the authority to record it—but they also kind of would.
As The Intercept reported last year, the NSA's SOMALGET program is sweeping up every telecommunications conversation made in the entire country of Mexico, and several other countries as well, including the Bahamas, Kenya, and the Philippines.
"Your cell phone calls in and out of Mexico will be bulk collected," Goitein told me. The recording would be made and stashed, and any potential legal ramifications would only come into play if the recording was actually put to some kind of use.
"If they were going to write up an intelligence report, and your call ended up being part of that report, they would have to look through that report, and they would have to see if you were a US person, and redact your name," Goitein explained.
There are several comparable programs, most of which have unnecessarily ominous names. The somewhat indiscriminate collection of email address books and contact lists by the NSA and its British equivalent, the GCHQ, is called "Muscular." There's also DISHFIRE, which the NSA uses to peruse webcam chats, and Code Traveler, which let's the agency figure out who someone's friends are by tracking the cellphone locations. In theory, all of these programs are only supposed to gather data on foreign nationals. But again, that's just in theory.
All of this outrageous to anyone with a strong desire to keep the government from sniffing around their business. What's more, we know for sure that since 9/11, the FBI has used the government's surveillance apparatus to crack down on the Occupy Movement, and to track the activities of other left-leaning activist groups.
But are there ramifications for people who aren't especially political, and who aren't particularly disturbed by the idea of the government sniffing through their electronic underwear from time to time?
The short answer is, we don't know exactly. And that's what makes it scary.
"You are counting—to a large degree—on self-policing," Goitein said. "If you are committing a crime, the government can and will use evidence against you that they have sucked up through these systems. The law allows it to do that. If you are not committing a crime, then you have to ask yourself, 'Do I trust all of these tens of thousands of members of the intelligence community, from now until the day I die, to follow all the rules?'"
Of course, members of the intelligence community don't always follow the rules. The NSA itself has admitted as much, telling the FISA Court in 2009 that "from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete understanding," of the architecture of its phone records collection system, and that that ignorance led to daily violations of FISA rules.
In other words, according to Goitein, "if you read some of the court's opinions, the court has become incredibly frustrated with the NSA because the NSA has—time after time—come in and said, 'Oh, sorry, we've been disobeying this order for the past three years and we just figured that out.'"
The creeping suspicion that we're all being monitored by the government is, itself, something to be feared if you're someone who values free speech. The free speech advocacy group PEN surveyed writers in 2013, and found that following the Snowden revelations, 28 percent of respondents said they had cut back on social media, 24 percent said they tried not to talk about certain topics by phone or email, and 16 percent said they steered clear of certain issues in their writing.
That might be paranoia, and it might not. "You might not know why you were put into a certain line at the airport," Goitein said. "Your kid applies to military school and doesn't get in, you would never know if it was because someone doesn't like your politics and is messing with you."
As for me, the unsettling thought that our entire interview—and any other phone call I make while I'm in Mexico—would be recorded has made me too grossed out to call home since I've been down here. And I know that in my professional life, I've modified my behaviors to avoid getting put on some watch list—and even joked about it—without consciously realizing that I'm trying to avoid the NSA.
So I'll just say it: I'm kinda scared. And I kinda think you should be too.
Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of NSA Surveillance?
3/5: Sweating it
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.