Item #2 on the NSA’s Official Talking Points to Justify Mass Surveillance (see p. 3) is “The NSA And Its Partners Must Make Sure We Connect The Dots So That The Nation Is Never Attacked Again Like On 9/11.” The government is fighting furiously against any attempt to restrict, say, its collection of metadata on all US telephone calls, because they argue that only collecting everything enables them to detect patterns and conduct analyses that would otherwise be impossible.
But what happens if instead of the government, the public starts using the same tools on the government? What happens when the burning eye of the surveillance state is turned back on itself?
Mother Jones reports that that’s what MIT PhD candidate Ryan Shapiro is doing. He has long been active in the field of animal rights, and became interested in the FBI’s characterization of “the eco-terrorism animal rights movement” as “the number one domestic terrorism threat” that we face. He has figured out a way of getting responses to FOIA that is so effective that the FBI is going to court to stop him.
Says Mother Jones:
Shapiro has developed a novel, legal, and highly effective approach to mining the agency’s records. [Let’s say] Shapiro requested all PETA-related FBI documents, he might get something back, but any references to [named volunteers] would be blacked out. If he requested documents related to us, he’d probably get nothing at all. But if he filed his PETA request along with privacy waivers signed by [the named volunteers], the FBI would be compelled to return all PETA documents that mention us — with the relevant details uncensored. Armed with signed privacy waivers, [he got a] response includ[ing] pages of information that Shapiro had requested previously, but that the FBI had claimed didn’t exist.
Using case details from those documents and a handful of additional waivers, [Shapiro] filed a new set of requests. “Each response is a teeny little window opened into the backrooms of these deliberately byzantine FBI filing systems,” Shapiro told me. “You get enough windows, and then you have the light you need to see what’s back there.” Soon Shapiro was submitting hundreds of requests, yielding tens of thousands of pages…
The FBI has filed an unusual “Open America” stay request with the DC Circuit Court, claiming that they are deluged with such requests and can’t possibly respond in time, and asking for seven years to determine merely what documents are responsive to Shapiro’s requests (Not actually to respond to them, which might take longer). It has filed a secret (of course) declaration outlining its case, and the court will rule over the next few months.
So the same government that asserts that it’s capable of marshaling yottabytes of data about us into a meaningful analysis of communication patterns so quickly that will thwart terrorist attacks before they occur, is also claiming that it needs more than 2,500 days to figure out which of its own documents are relevant to how it defines and understands what is and is not a terrorist threat?
At least one of these claims is not true.
And Heaven forfend, of course, that the American people should ever develop a clear understanding of what does and does not constitute terrorism in the view of the surveillance state. Then, it might be possible for a reasonable person to take steps ahead of time to avoid being guilty of it. And we wouldn’t want that, not when terrorism prosecutions are so vital for maintaining
the FBI’s budget NATIONAL SECURITY.