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Knapp: Why you should be concerned about the NSA’s new info-collecting program, even though you have nothing to hide

<p>George Knapp (Portrait by Jeferson Applegate)</p>

George Knapp (Portrait by Jeferson Applegate)

Government officials in our neighbor to the east were pretty pleased with themselves when they finally locked down a deal to bring a massive spy facility to their neck of the woods. The National Security Agency needed a spot for its latest state-of-the-art surveillance factory, and the conservative, ever-accommodating leaders of Utah were happy to oblige.

“Heck, they can read my e-mails all day,” cracked one official from the city of Bluffdale. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

I can’t believe how many times I have heard similar comments in the weeks since Edward Snowden pulled the lid off the NSA’s Orwellian surveillance program. People whose opinions I respect have reacted in the most cavalier fashion as each new layer of the NSA onion has been peeled back. No big deal, they say, because they have nothing to hide. The fact that so many educated people can say with a straight face that they trust our government to do the right thing as it rifles through our underwear drawers is flat-out flabbergasting.

When I ponder the purity of government motives and wonder whether assorted alphabet agencies deserve our blind confidence and trust, the name of Lance Malone comes to mind. Malone was a police officer who parlayed his good looks and conservative philosophy into a short-lived political career. After serving on the Clark County Commission for a term, he went to work for ambitious strip club owner Mike Galardi and became the primary conduit through which Galardi passed large wads of cash to public officials.

The G-Sting affair still ranks as the largest political corruption scandal in the history of Las Vegas. Cops, feds, prosecutors, judges and assorted elected officials got caught up in it. Malone, by no means the architect of the scheme, served a longer prison term than any of the targets. Three colleagues from the County Commission likewise did time.

You wouldn’t think the feds would need to rely on provisions of the sparsely read Patriot Act to bring down a gaggle of garden-variety politicians, but that’s what happened. The Patriot Act, as we now know, was hastily created after 9/11, so that lawmen might be able to root out terrorists and stop future attacks. We were promised, time and again, that the trampling of previously sacrosanct constitutional protections would be limited, that terrorists were the targets and that there was no other way to ensure that future 9/11’s would not happen.

Lance Malone isn’t a terrorist. He’s never been to Pakistan, never shared a bowl of goat stew with bin Laden or the boys — but the Patriot Act was used to help nail him and the others. The feds used the act to obtain financial records from the targets of the probe. They admitted as much in court.

But a more pointed truth, one that’s been obscured or forgotten, is that agents used the Patriot Act to eavesdrop on conversations Malone had in his car. They simply tapped into his OnStar system and listened. They didn’t really need to do this. The feds had already intercepted and recorded more than 120,000 phone conversations during the investigation. They used this tool because they could.

And that brings us back to the NSA super facility at Bluffdale. Utah officials were pleased about its $1.7 billion price tag, happy about a few hundred jobs that were created. But — with the exception of a few hundred rag-tag protesters — no one asked what the NSA would be able to do once the facility was running. I don’t think they even want to know.

Former NSA analyst Bill Binney, who spilled the beans on his employer long before Snowden surfaced, did the math and figured out that the facility is simply too big for the NSA to be telling the truth. See, NSA has at least five similar facilities around the world — each expanded in recent months — and Binney says there is no way it needs that much space to merely collected “meta-data,” which is what the NSA says it plans to do. Meta-data is the nice, innocuous term NSA uses to describe its gargantuan surveillance program. It is essentially collecting everything … every electronic communication in the entire world. Every e-mail, every phone call, every text message, every tweet and Facebook post, everything, planet-wide.

According to Binney, NSA could store the meta-data from every communication in the world in computers that would take up about 12 feet by 20 feet. The fact that the Bluffdale complex will give NSA a million square feet tells Binney and others that NSA will be analyzing more than just the phone numbers or the duration of calls. He says the only way it makes sense is so they can collect and analyze content, meaning the substance of your messages. The Utah plant will be able to not only storing every message in the world for a year, it could handle every message in the world for the next 500 years. The computers there will be capable of downloading the equivalent of the Library of Congress — every minute.

You don’t care because, you know, you have nothing to hide? Consider where this is heading. Since 96 percent of all new cars are essentially computers on wheels, the government will soon be able to track every move you make, every place you visit, and will also be able to listen to whatever unfolds in your ride. The “black box” device soon to be installed in every new car will reveal how fast you drive and whether you wear your seat belt. You already know your cell phone is a perfect tracking device, but it’s also a listening device, even when it is turned off.

Your computer at home likely has a camera feature, which means someone can not only monitor every website you visit, everything you purchase online, every porn site you ogle, but they can presumably watch you, too. How long will it be before your television will be used in a likewise manner? Are you okay with having someone peer into your bedroom as you flip channels?

Police agencies now use software that will track every license plate. Video cameras are posted on many corners. (The Strip, already one of the most photographed places on Earth, is getting a new video surveillance system that will watch every move of every visitor.) Your life is already an open book because the data-mining technology of Facebook and Twitter have been absorbed into the NSA’s database. A photo taken on your iPhone tells the world where you took it. You thought the people who complained about possible privacy violations from smart meters were nuts? Doesn’t sound far-fetched to me. Not anymore.

The fact that the secret surveillance program is overseen by a secret court is hardly a comfort. All that we know about the court is that it pretty much okays every request it receives. That’s some oversight. We know that agencies have spied on peace groups, environmentalists, civil-rights leaders, Greenpeace, the ACLU and the Wall Street protesters — all under the pretense that they might be bad guys. So we should believe the assurances that the new massive surveillance capabilities will strictly be used to go after those who wish us harm? Really?

Before 9/11, the NSA was forbidden from turning its eyes onto the homeland. Now, everything is fair game. If you give these agencies a tool, they will use it, plain and simple. Lance Malone taught us that, and it won’t matter what assurances they give us. Once this genie is out of the bottle, it is never going back in.

One final note. Those who insist that there is a dire need for the government to know everything about everyone continue to invoke the terrible imagery from 9/11 to justify their position. News flash: Long before we had a Department of Homeland Security, long before NSA turned its cameras on us, our government had all the info it needed to thwart the 9/11 plotters. We knew damned well the attack was coming. We didn’t need to tap every phone in America to stop it. People ignored the evidence because it suited their political agenda. And now we are a much different country because of it. All the super-surveillance and data-mining in the world will not stop a terrorist attack if no one pays attention to the info we already have.

There is now a gigantic and highly profitable industry, a megalithic infrastructure that depends on scaring the shit out of all of us, and doing so on a regular basis. Fear means big money for the folks to whom our security has been outsourced, money that the companies spread around to politicians, sort of like the G-Sting scandal. Maybe you think they can be trusted to read your e-mails, or to evaluate actual terrorist threats, or to thwart a future attack, but I don’t.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.