By: David Meyer
Pervasive online surveillance isn’t just for spotting threats to national security – it may also be a handy tool for using people’s personal activities to discredit them.
According to a Huffington Post piece that cites documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA has been collecting evidence of alleged Islamist extremists’ visits to pornographic sites, and has at least considered using this information to undermine their message.
The NSA monitored at least 6 Muslim “radicalizers”, all of whom are believed to live outside the U.S., and none of whom are apparently believed to be involved in any actual terror plot. Like others, one “respected academic”, who allegedly promotes al-Qai’da propaganda, is noted for his “online promiscuity” (and for publishing articles “without checking facts”).
As the HuffPo article (co-authored by Snowden confidant Glenn Greenwald) points out, this is all a bit reminiscent of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI monitoring political leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr back in the 1960s, with the intention of using evidence of their sexual activities to discredit them and undermine their message.
Of course, MLK was broadly on the side of the angels, whereas this unnamed Islamist academic may not be — but that’s not the point. The point is that information is power, and the shift of people’s personal lives from offline to online means the NSA and its masters are becoming more powerful by the day.
I wish it was just scaremongering to suggest that this power may be misused, but history teaches us that unchecked power has that effect on those who wield it. After all, why combat speech you don’t like with a compelling counter-narrative, when you can just destroy the speaker instead?
As American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in the HuffPo piece, it’s fair to worry that a “president will ask the NSA to use the fruits of surveillance to discredit a political opponent, journalist or human rights activist.”
At the very least, the knowledge that their most private moments are being monitored will surely chill the speech of at least some of those who suspect they’re on the NSA’s radar. As a weapon against free expression – whether hateful or just dissenting — surveillance is very effective.