Covert data-collecting govt. surveillance ops going unnoticed by Congress, media, and the public

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A number of covert government surveillance operations collecting a wide range of information from individuals has been exposed over the last year but the unconstitutional data gathering has mostly gone unnoticed by Americans, Congress, and the media.

The Hill’s Chris Mills Rodrigo discussed at length how intelligence agencies have been using broad executive authority to take advantage of an alleged loophole in the Fourth Amendment to secure mountains of data on Americans without them noticing it was happening.

“Three of these major discoveries, all made public by Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) office, concern the CIA gathering American data, a defense agency buying consumer data from a third-party broker and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) participating in a program stealthily compiling money transfer records,” Rodrigo reported.

He then laid out how these revelations differ from others in the past such as Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the National Security Agency.

“First, details about the programs exposed recently are scarce. Essentially all that the public knows about the CIA’s program is that it was conducted under Executive Order (EO) 12333 authority and collected bulk data,” Rodrigo noted.

“Little is known about what the analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency did with smartphone location data they purchased or what DHS agents used money transfer receipts for,” he added.

That contrasts with Snowden’s case where documents were leaked and the media had a field day with them. Congress was also on top of the high-profile story but appears to be ignoring current operations by intelligence agencies.

There have been crickets on recent intelligence agency activities concerning massive data mining. There has also been no widespread outrage or hearings over possible abuses of intelligence gathering. Those assisting intelligence agencies allegedly violating the privacy of Americans have also gone unscathed.

“Members of Congress should use every opportunity, particularly in open sessions, to ask questions … on those key privacy and surveillance issues,” Wyden, who sits on the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, urged. “I relate them to the national security issues that often dominate the headlines.”

Congress’s inaction on the matter has frustrated privacy advocates, prompting them to speak forcefully over the issue. Forty-five civil liberties groups have now joined forces, sending a letter on Friday to the chair and ranking member of the intelligence and judiciary committees in both chambers calling for Congress to use its muscle and act on legislation to address the data gathering.

“Given the breadth of this type of surveillance and its roots in an unaccountable claim of inherent presidential power, Congress must act now or risk diminishing its own power to conduct intelligence oversight and to establish the rules governing intelligence surveillance of Americans,” the group contended. The advocacy coalition who wrote the letter included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Project on Government Oversight.

Rodrigo pointed out, “Surveillance issues could be forced into the congressional spotlight when Section 702 of FISA, the statutory basis for targeting foreign communications, comes up for reauthorization. But that will not happen until the end of 2023, and leadership in both chambers showed a willingness to stymie reforms by letting authorization of Section 215 of the act, used to collect business records, expire in 2020.”

Since hot topics such as inflation, COVID, and Ukraine are front and center in Americans’ minds these days, Elizabeth Goitein, who is the director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, claims that putting surveillance of Americans on a back burner may be due to “outrage prioritization.”

“Attention can be a finite resource,” she said in an interview with The Hill. “Needless to say, I think surveillance abuses should be high up on the list, but there’s a lot going on right now. It’s hard to break through.”

“Unless there is a major privacy meltdown,” Wyden asserted, “you’re dealing with the fact that every night on the news there’s a war going on that Americans are clearly concerned about.”

Many Americans also think that their privacy is non-existent these days. And then there are many who willingly hand over private information in exchange for freebies or to access a given platform.

Goitein argued that privacy advocates need to determine the risks of data being mined by Google versus an intelligence agency. There are many out there that would say they are the same thing these days. Google reportedly willingly provides information to the federal authorities.

“Facebook can try to sell you products, but Facebook can’t put you in jail,” she stated. “Ideological prosecution or suppression isn’t in the monetary interest of these companies.” Again, there is a lot of evidence out there that contradicts that assertion and if it is not monetary interest, it is potentially political interest.

While it appears that what Wyden is uncovering is a good thing, the focus of his outrage seems to be on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allegedly operating a “bulk surveillance” project responsible for collecting the financial records on money transfers that were greater than $500 sent to Mexico and certain states. The practice is no longer in effect but lawmakers and civil liberties experts claim it may have violated US law, according to Gizmondo.

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