American Spies: Modern Surveillance, Why You Should Care, and What to Do About It

Posted on by Ben Rothke

Return on investment (ROI) is a measure used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment. It measures the amount of return on an investment relative to its cost. To calculate ROI, the return of an investment is divided by the cost of the investment, and the result is expressed as a percentage or a ratio.

If anyone would attempt to gauge the ROI spent by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other federal agencies post 9/11, Jennifer Stisa Granick would have you believe that it’s extraordinarily low. In American Spies: Modern Surveillance, Why You Should Care, and What to Do About It (Cambridge University Press ISBN 1107103231), she has written a well-researched expose of the perceived abuses by U.S intelligence agencies. Her conclusion is that the massive surveillance by the U.S. intelligence agencies have had little to no effect in preventing terrorist attacks.

The book is an indictment of the U.S intelligence agencies (she terms American spies) who have used overly aggressive and often unconstitutional surveillance methods. Granick provides overwhelming evidence that the intelligence agencies, in collision with the Bush and Obama administrations, have run roughshod over the Constitution and civil liberties. The book notes that post-9/11, government surveillance has gone through the roof, while the rights of innocent private citizens have not been fully considered.

US government agencies have a long history of abuse. From the FBI during the Hoover era, to the abuses by the CIA, NSA, FBI and IRS that were addressed by the Church Committee in 1975. With that, even though the book heaps scorn on the NSA and its domestic and international partners, it’s important to keep in mind that most US agencies, while bureaucracies, are not breaking the law in a wholesale manner.

Granick writes that while America can survive terrorism, American democracy can’t survive modern surveillance. She notes that privacy is the key to the exercise of individual freedoms. And this is running head-on into the US government, which is talking a collect everything approach. By having all that information in government databases, far too much personal information is available to the government which can use for inappropriate purposes.

For anyone who wants to understand what lead Edward Snowden to leak classified information, the book is an absolute must read. As to Snowden’s actions; Granick suggests than rather talking about him, the discussion should be about what he helped reveal. She’s referring to the massive surveillance on innocent Americans, often in direct contradiction to the 4th amendment,

The chapter on Word Games is particularly interesting. She describes how the intelligence agencies use a coded vocabulary that deflects any non-expert and sometimes experts as well, from learning the truth about what the agencies are doing. Terms such as collect, in bulk, surveillance are used by agencies in the way that citizens and members of Congress likely won’t understand.

The book piles on numerous compelling arguments against the intelligence agencies methods for mass surveillance. Perhaps the most forceful is for purely technical reasons. She notes that the basis of much of their approach is to collect everything, and use big data sets for analysis later.

Yet that approach is fundamentally flawed, as finding terrorists is an inherently different challenge from other data analysis goals. Granick feels that big data will probably never be useful for identifying unknown terrorists, no matter how much computer science advances. This is due to terrorism in the US being so rare and distinctive. With that, the agencies simply can’t use past data to identify any common thing or what to look for in the future.

As a lawyer, Granick has done a superb job in laying out her case. There were though some minor issues and errors in the book:

  • She writes that the Tsarnaev’s brothers allegedly built pressure cooker bombs. As Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty, I’ll assume she wrote that section before his April 2015 guilty verdict
  • The quote “if we can’t be an honest democracy, then the terrorists have already won” puts way too much credence into terrorism
  • The book notes that one of the organizations the NSA spied on was the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Yet Granick doesn’t write that there were legitimate reasons why the NSA would want to spy on CAIR.
  • She dismisses those who disparage Snowden’s motives by noting they often have less Twitter followers than he does. But follower counts and valid arguments have nothing to do with one another.

At the RSA Conference last month, former NSA Deputy Director John Inglis said in his presentation How to Catch a Snowden, that the NSA never violated the 4th Amendment. He felt that the NSA was at a significant disadvantage due to the myriad deleterious stories about NSA activities, the agency was never able to tell its story. The titillating stories about the Snowden revelations forced the NSA to reply to those “alternate facts” and the agency was never able to effectively respond to what they really did. As to Inglis’s observation, the book has given the agency loads of things to respond to; of which they’ve yet to do.

Ironically, much of the tens of billions of dollars the NSA and other agencies spent was meant to connect the dots. Yet Inglis admitted that the NSA was unable to connect the dots when it came to Snowden.

Two years before 9/11, al-Qaeda member Ahmed Ressam was arrested by US customs agent Diana Dean as he was acting hinky when trying to enter from Canada. What she achieved with that single arrest didn’t cost hundreds of billions of dollars or violate the Constitution. And it’s that story encapsulates this book.

This is an extremely important book. Granick lays out the case that personal privacy is far too important to a democratic society to let it slip away. She details abuses of power at the highest ranks, misuse of federal statues, disregard to the constitution and more. The American spies she writes about may mean well in the name of patriotism, but they are completely out of control. This is her effort to reign them in. 

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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