How Does Government Surveillance Work?

Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the US government went all-in on surveillance. The American population was sold on the idea that surveillance was necessary to avoid future terrorism and other attacks. Government surveillance is a massive effort that spends tens of billions of dollars per year in the United States alone. Most people have a basic understanding of what the CIA and FBI do, but surveillance agencies extend far beyond those two agencies.

United States Intelligence Community

The United States has a massive and well-established network of surveillance organizations that work together and separately to collect information about both citizens and non-citizens around the world. The organizations within this community collect and produce foreign and domestic intelligence, which then contributes to military planning and espionage.

National Security Agency (NSA)

The National Security Agency (NSA) is an intelligence agency within the United States Department of Defense. The NSA is responsible for global monitoring, collection, and processing of information for foreign and domestic intelligence. It also is responsible for protecting communication networks and information systems in the United States. Unfortunately, the NSA has developed surveillance programs for internet and phone records, giving them a scary look into individuals’ lives. According to the Statistical Transparency Report for 2017, the NSA collected call details about 534,396,285 calls in 2017.

“They (the NSA) can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”—Edward Snowden

Read More: 8 Ways the NSA is Spying on You Right Now

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a civilian foreign intelligence service that gathers, processes, and analyzes national security information from around the world. Its main primary focus is to provide intelligence for the President and the President’s Cabinet. The CIA is the only agency that is legally authorized to carry out and oversee covert action at the behest of the President. This information is intended to aid in decision making for the government and its agencies.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the domestic intelligence and security service is the principal federal law enforcement agency for the United States. The FBI has jurisdiction over violations of federal crimes and is the leading counter-terrorism, counterintelligence, and criminal investigative organization in the US.

Members of the United States Intelligence Community

  • Twenty-Fifth Air Force
  • Intelligence and Security Command
  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • Coast Guard Intelligence
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence
  • Office of Intelligence and Analysis
  • Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  • Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
  • Office of National Security Intelligence
  • Intelligence Branch
  • Marine Corps Intelligence Activity
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
  • National Reconnaissance Office
  • National Security Agency/Central Security Service
  • Office of Naval Intelligence

Surveillance Programs are Biased

One of the most concerning parts of surveillance programs is how they impact certain communities much more than others. Similar to how algorithmic systems online integrate the biases of the people that make them, surveillance programs may have a bias towards certain minorities. The systems that surveillance programs use to develop watchlists or flag individuals are often influenced by the people that developed them.

These surveillance programs also give unnecessary power to government agencies. In the past, the FBI or police departments would have to get a warrant to collect information about someone or to access someone’s private life. Today these agencies can use the information they’ve already collected to determine if monitoring someone is warranted.

ACLU Fighting Back Against Surveillance Agencies

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is against widespread surveillance programs for many reasons.

  1. Surveillance hasn’t been proven to be effective. The US government has used terror attacks and other tragedies to “sell” the need for surveillance to Americans. While there is certainly value in monitoring citizens who raise red flags, surveillance of Americans has done very little to prevent terrorist attacks.
  2. Governments aren’t transparent enough about surveillance efforts. The US Constitution says that governments should be transparent and accountable to its people, but much of the surveillance that happens in the United States is done in a covert manner. It’s only through whistleblowers and leaks that we have any knowledge of these surveillance programs.
  3. Surveillance unfairly targets minority communities and activists. Many of the domestic surveillance programs in the United States target minority communities in ways that are largely unjustified. This infringes on the rights of these communities, without having comparable programs in other communities.
  4. Historically, surveillance systems have almost always been abused for various ends. Surveillance systems present large opportunities for malicious actors both within the surveillance organizations and external threats. A corrupt official who has access to a surveillance system could target specific individuals and collect unwarranted information to use to blackmail that person. Alternatively, if these systems get hacked and surveillance details have leaked, the privacy of millions of people could be compromised.

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