The Verizon/NSA/FISA issue has alarmed a lot of people to varying degrees, and for many different reasons. Now, my rational side agrees with writer David Simon, who expressed his thoughts on the matter here and here. TL;DR:
“. . . the Verizon call data should be used as a viable data base for counter-terror investigations and […] its misuse should be greeted with the hyperbole that currently adorns the present moment. On the other hand, […] while I still believe the differences between call data and a wiretap are profound, and that the standard for obtaining call data has been and should remain far more modest for law enforcement, the same basic privacy protections don’t yet exist for internet communication. There, the very nature of the communication means that once it is harvested, the content itself is obtained. And the law has few of the protections accorded telephonic communication, and so privacy and civil liberties are, at this moment in time, more vulnerable to legal governmental overreach. That’s a legislative matter, but it needs to be addressed.”
But while Simon’s argument seems relatively clear-cut and logical when taken in the abstract, it becomes something else entirely when zoomed down to the scale of the intimately personal.
See, I know what it feels like to find out that someone has been listening to your phone calls. Because recently, I learned that someone had been listening to mine.
1. The Letter
One day late last year, I received a note from the mailman that a certified letter was waiting for me at the post office. I couldn’t guess what it might be for, but I figured it might be related to taxes or insurance or some routine thing. So I drove down to the post office, stood in line, and waited to pick it up. After I handed my ticket to the clerk and she returned with it, I glanced at the return address and felt a gut-punch of unease.
U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Connecticut
What the hell? Connecticut? Huh? That’s my home state, and I have relatives there. Oh, man, did a cousin do something stupid or something?
Unable to wait until I drove home before opening the letter, I found an empty patch of countertop by the window and opened the letter. I’d be lying if I said my hands weren’t trembling just a little bit. As I quickly scanned the very official-looking letter, the keywords popped out at me, each one causing a stone of confusion and uncertainty to fall into my stomach. In the matter of . . . interception of wire and electronic communications . . . pursuant to . . . you are advised as follows . . .
There followed a three-page list of dates, phone numbers, and in big bold letters “Target Telephone” followed by a number. Target Telephone 5. Target Telephone 6. Altogether, nine Target Telephones. None of them I recognized offhand, and none of them, I was relieved to see, were mine. I noticed, with a growing sense of surreality, that each paragraph was numbered. As if this was just someone’s to-do list.
Only when I reached the final paragraph, Paragraph 10, on the last page of the letter, did this Matrix-like cascade of numbers and words suddenly coalesce with a crystal clarity that made my heart pump so hard that I actually felt the arteries in my neck swell: “You are receiving this notice because you were intercepted during one or more of the authorized periods of interception. If you have any questions regarding this notice, please contact Special Agent . . . ”
If I had any questions? If I had any QUESTIONS??? You’ve just told me that I’ve been talking with someone or someones unknown to me who was being wiretapped — wiretapped! — by the FBI, and you think I might have questions?
As soon as I got home — a shaky ride — I put in a call to the Special Agent and got his voicemail. I left him a message explaining I had just received the letter and, yes, I had some questions, and to please call me back.
A day went by. No response. I called and left another message. No response. I called his field office and tried to speak to someone else who could help me. No one could. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of questions were just pounding louder and louder in my head, along with the uncertainty.
Was I in trouble? Was I a potential witness in some pending trial? I knew I had done nothing (knowingly) illegal, but did that matter? Was there any kind of guilt by association from having talked to — who, exactly? Did I have to worry about, I don’t know, threats from the person who got bugged? Did they get arrested? Have I been talking with a terrorist?
Trust me, the questions come as thick and fast as the flywheel of the imagination can build its momentum. At some point you just have to rein it in, put the brakes on. But you begin to understand just a little bit about how some people can become paranoid.
I dug up all my notes from the five months (five months??) that the wiretaps had been authorized. I cross-checked all the numbers against anyone I had interviewed for articles I had written during that time. I checked the numbers against family members in my address book. And all the while I waited to hear back from the FBI Special Agent, who never did call back by the way.
I contacted an expert in national security whose e-newsletter I have subscribed to since library school (ironically, government transparency and classification are issues of personal interest to me — surely a coincidence, right?). While he shared my concern, he could only offer some general (but very welcome) advice, and suggested that I speak with a lawyer who specialized in surveillance law.
Okay, look. Like most ordinary, dull, boring, average citizens, I don’t interact with law enforcement on a daily basis. So the first time in your life you hear the words, “maybe you should speak to a lawyer,” you suddenly realize that you’ve probably crossed some kind of boundary. Last week, I’m a self-employed writer minding my own business. And suddenly now I’m faced with the prospect of becoming one of those people you hear about.
The attorney I spoke with was a very collegial fellow, but as I explained my situation and then said the words “Inventory Letter,” he grew suddenly serious.
“Have you done anything that you should be worried about?”
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
And I reluctantly admitted that that’s really the only option I had left. I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I shouldn’t worry about it. About any of it.
2. The Reductio ad Absurdum
Now, all during this time I had been deep-diving the web in search of anything that could shed some light on the letter and the proceedings. Late into many sleepless nights, I read a lot of FBI manuals and legal opinions and court cases and and federal policy and polemics and screeds and paranoid rants from the tin-foil-hat squad. I gave myself a crash-course in the history and law of surveillance and wiretapping in the United States. All just so I could find out what this letter meant.
Turns out that inventory notices like the one I received can be issued by judges after an investigation is completed to inform people that they had been surveilled. Essentially, telling them,
We just wanted you to know that, at some point over an extended period, we listened to one or more of your conversations with one or more persons who we can’t name. Sincerely, the Justice Department.
I also learned, incidentally, that judges don’t have to require the FBI to issue inventory notices. So I guess I should feel grateful to the judge for insisting that I be told. How many other people got this same letter? How many people wondered, like I did, what it really meant, and what the implications were for them?
Is this the logic that we have been reduced to: “Hey, that letter is proof that we’re not living in a totalitarian surveillance state — because in America, we may (or may not) actually tell you when we’ve been listening in on your conversations”?
3. The Bottom Line:
Look, I’m not trying to blow this out of proportion. This was just one ordinary person’s very tangential brush with a completely legal and fairly routine event involving federal law enforcement officers doing their job.
But even that glancing, momentary encounter changed something fundamental in my life. One day I received a letter and found inside a couple of pieces to a puzzle and a note saying that I’m not allowed to know anything else about the puzzle.
From that letter I learned that, in the invisible world, someone unknown to me had decided, for reasons equally unknown, that I needed to know that people whose names I will never learn once listened to me talking with someone else on the phone. They decided that I had a right to know that they had legally invited themselves into my conversation, and had remained there, silent, listening to me.
So while I agree intellectually with David Simon and others that these things are legal and that, taken in the aggregate, they are probably saving lives as we speak, I also know that ubiquitous surveillance also has another, profound, effect as well.
As more and more ordinary people like me have a glancing encounter with some part of the ever-growing national security apparatus, more and more of us will probably find ourselves unwittingly looking over our shoulder. Catching ourselves before speaking our mind. Second-guessing people’s motives. Seeing ghosts. Wondering if a friend is keeping secrets from us. Wondering if someone is listening to us.
Is that gradual corrosive effect too high a price to pay for our collective safety? I don’t pretend to have an authoritative answer to that. But personally, right now it feels that way.
Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything
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