The disclosures from the Snowden files keep on coming, with each revelation more disturbing than the last. The latest report reveals a plan by the National Security Agency to collected information on six people's online activities, particularly their visits to pornographic websites, to discredit them within their community.
This is an example of "how 'personal vulnerabilities' can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target's credibility, reputation, and authority," activist Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Huffington Post on Tuesday evening.
In the document dated October 2012, the NSA identified six Muslim men who were "prominent, globally resonating foreign radicalizers." The document claimed the NSA had collected information about these individuals, which if exposed, "would likely call into question a radicalizer's devotion to the jihadist cause, leading to the degradation or loss of his authority."
The NSA had evidence of these men viewing sexually explicit material online, using sexually explicit language when communicating with young girls, using donations to pay personal expenses, charging exorbitant speaking fees, and using questionable sources and contradictory language, according to the document, portions of which Huffington Post has published on its site. These people could be accused of online promiscuity, wanting to be famous, or for having a "glamorous lifestyle," according to the report.
"Issues of trust and reputation are important when considering the validity and appeal of the message," the document said. It would be possible to look at the person's activities, contacts, and "vulnerabilities of character," to undermine the credibility of the radicalizer and his message.
The most disturbing takeaway from this document is this simple fact: none of the six individuals the NSA was monitoring were accused of being involved in terrorism.
Your Activities Used Against You
Let's rephrase that: The NSA is taking advantage of its massive surveillance programs to spy on people who weren't terrorists.
Whatever happened to focusing on just the people who pose an imminent threat to the United States? The NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander and various officials have repeatedly insisted that despite having so much data at their fingertips, they are pulling out data to investigate only those people they believe are engaged in activities against the US.
None of the individuals named in this document are currently residing in the United States, and while one of them have been imprisoned for hate speech against non-Muslims and one had promoted al-Qaeda propaganda, there was nothing to suggest that the NSA was concerned about their actual involvement in a potential terrorist attack. So far, their activities fall under speech, and at least one of them is a US citizen or permanent resident, which means the Constitution still applies to that person.
"This is not the first time we've seen States use intimate and private information of an individual who holds views the government doesn't agree with, and exploit this information to undermine an individual's message," Privacy International told Huffington Post.
Policy vs Strategy
The documents show that the NSA discussed a plan, a strategy, on what it could do to these individuals, but it was not an actual policy that the NSA had adopted. One argument was that discussing what the government could do was not the same as the government deciding to do something and actually carrying it out, and these documents still don't show that the NSA did anything wrong.
"If people are engaged in trying to recruit folks to kill Americans and we can discredit them, we ought to," Stewart Baker, a one-time general counsel for the NSA and a top Homeland Security official in the Bush administration, told Huffington Post.
On the other hand, there is nothing to indicate that the NSA hasn't approved this plan, or was on the verge of doing so. The document is only a year old, and the government isn't always known for being nimble. The "what if?" raises some disturbing questions.
Image credit: Flickr (jonathan mcintosh)