Secret surveillance programs run by the government by their very nature should not threaten American citizens. However, the extent and legality of government surveillance has become very questionable as details leak out of abuses by parties who use personal guidelines to delve into business the government has no right to practice.
The threat to fundamental American liberties has now become the issue that separates most civilians whose allegiances are torn between the right to privacy and the protection that is touted through these invasive procedures.
Most citizens see the practices of the NSA as invisible and yet ubiquitous and therefore acceptable. On September 11, 2001 when the towers were attacked in New York, most Americans recalibrate their values and POV in regard to privacy and rights for citizens and foreigners on American soil.
The pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was the turning point for many patriotic flag waiving Americans who questioned the motives of the hawks and the military complex. Travelers today are often subject to apparently random scrutiny, however the existence of watch lists is well known. A threat score for any traveler should be an evaluation of historical data combined with a reading by trained observers at check points who asses risks based upon quantifiable data.
Laura Poitras, in an exclusive to the New York Times, asks, “When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process.” Poitras was not paranoid, because “They REALLY Were Watching!”
Taking steps to protect data, asking traveling companions to carry your laptop if you feel overly scrutinized, and even going so far as to not carry any data that is not extra heavily encrypted is not unreasonable. Wiping computers and cellphones clean so that there could be nothing for the authorities to see is also not unreasonable if you fear your activities might be considered questionable. Encrypting data, so that outsiders could not read files should they fall out of your possession is no longer unreasonable. Security preparations of this nature seem outright unAmerican, yet they have become reasonable when even local government entities feel they have the right to peek in on citizens who they feel are “troublesome.”
Poitras worked on a surveillance documentary in 2011, and at this time she raised her digital security to an even higher level. Cellphone usage had to become a limited luxury because it betrays not only who you are calling and when, but your location at any given point in time. And, this is when you disable location services, which give many a false sense of security. E-mailing sensitive documents or having sensitive conversations on the phone was no longer an option. Software to mask the Web sites she visited became a necessary precaution.
When her contacts became the target of enhanced scrutiny, Poitras realized her fears were well founded. “William Binney, a former top N.S.A. official who publicly accused the agency of illegal surveillance, was at home one morning in 2007 when F.B.I. agents burst in and aimed their weapons at his wife, his son and himself. Binney was, at the moment the agent entered his bathroom and pointed a gun at his head, naked in the shower. His computers, disks and personal records were confiscated and have not yet been returned. Binney has not been charged with any crime.”
“Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy activist who was a volunteer with WikiLeaks, has also been filmed by Poitras. The government issued a secret order to Twitter for access to Appelbaum’s account data, which became public when Twitter fought the order. Though the company was forced to hand over the data, it was allowed to tell Appelbaum. Google and a small I.S.P. that Appelbaum used were also served with secret orders and fought to alert him. Like Binney, Appelbaum has not been charged with any crime.”
And, so it appeared that Poitras would be silenced through government pressure until Glen Greenwald entered her life. Glen Greenwald was a writer for Salon. His article, “U.S. Filmmaker Repeatedly Detained at Border,” was published in April 2012. Soon after this news broke, the detentions of those who spoke to Poitras ceased. Six years of surveillance and harassment of Poitras might have been coming to an end, but the NSA was about to be violated by new leaks.
And so came Edward Joseph Snowden. Snowden had read Greenwald’s article about Poitras’s harassment and heavy scrutiny at U.S. airports and knew she was making a film based on his specific area of expertise, US government’s surveillance programs. Snowden had seen a short documentary about the N.S.A. By Poitras for The New York Times Op-Docs. He figured that she would understand the programs he wanted to leak about and would know how to communicate in a secure way.
New encryption software made communication between the parties more secure, but it also drew additional scrutiny. The development of the relationship and issues of the Snowden attempts to force some measure of public/government approval for these secret programs became more feverish.