So I’ve been meaning to get my records from the FBI ever since high school when I discovered the Freedom of Information Act was a thing, but never got around to it. I’ve been even more interested since my little incident, but I’m lazy, so I just continued with my not getting around to it. Then the intelligence stories broke, and I smugly snickered to myself because I knew the government was always collecting information on us via illegal means. I mean, it’s like half of what governments do. Generally, I approve. I can’t even weigh in on what passes for political discourse in this country because I would actually do what the crazies are accusing Obama of doing. Seriously: I would take away everyone’s guns, force public healthcare on everyone, put all the bankers in jail, engage in a strategic, federally-funded campaign to eradicate religion, turn us into a socialist state, and give every annoying country in the world forty-eight hours to stand down their armies before I nuked them back to the Cambrian. I probably wouldn’t euthanize old people, but I might force abortions on the stupid.
I digress. When agents start coming to people’s houses because of search engine records, things are getting a little out of hand. So I decided it was time to head over to www.mynsarecords.com and see how my record stood. Between my public life and criminal record, I expected—not without pride—a pretty high score.
This is what I sent them:
So I was a little flippant, and I didn’t expect to get all of them. I was just hoping for a handful of official-looking paper with a lot of proper nouns blacked out. What I got instead was the longest-winded rejection letter of my life.
I received this for one of four reasons: they send it to everyone as an automatic denial, like insurance companies do with most claims, they have information on me and have collected it in a way they won’t admit to, they have no information on me, or they realized I was trolling them and got bitchy about it. So, in order, the NSA is an insurance company, a liar, incompetent, or a twelve-year-old redditor.
So after the passive-aggressive pseudo-apology about “considerable speculation” in the media, where they acknowledge that they are, at best, lying and power-crazed criminals with a federal Get-The-Fuck-Out pass, we get the kicker sentences: “To the extent that your request seeks any information on you in relation to NSA intelligence programs, we cannot acknowledge the existence or non-existence of such information. Any positive or negative response on a request-by-request basis would allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.”
First of all, a high school dungeon master has to have more creativity than “our adversaries.” They at least have to say kobolds or skeletons or something. “Our adversaries” is a floating label for whatever the hell they want it to be: terrorists, muslims, immigrants, any country with either too much or too little economic clout, and probably me on somebody’s list, especially after that forced abortion crack at the beginning of this essay. And what basis is there besides request-by-request for them to disseminate this information? There’s probably terminology separating my request from an agency’s request, but it bespeaks a tenuous command of the ‘murican language.
I expect a conversation about information theory and data connectivity with the average NSA employee would be a painful one involving Legos and M&Ms, but whoever came up with this excuse at least has a Bachelor’s, because the statutes that allow them to do this reflexive sweeping denial effectively short circuit the entire Freedom of Information Act. Every single piece of data collected by any government agency has NSA grease on it at this point, so all of it has some “relation to NSA intelligence programs” and all of it can be denied to the public for fear of “our adversaries.”
I’m all for bureaucratic surveillance, but it has to go both ways. It’s not the amount of information collected or even the purpose of collecting it: the power comes from imbalance of access. After thirteen years of frothing fanboyism, Apple has forever lost my trust by giving the police the ability to turn off my phone if they feel like it’s time to give a hippy a good old-fashioned beating. I’m not concerned about the collection of information, because that’s good for everyone: I’m concerned about restricting access to it, because that’s only good for the people holding the keys, since it allows them to control things like accountability and trust. Personally, if I had the ability to reliably track the location and motivations of four hundred million people whether they wanted it or not, my public speeches would go something like this: “Hey, adversaries. There’s a guy named Doug Philips watching this speech right now, eating Cool Ranch Doritos. He’s wearing sweat pants, makes thirty-five dollars an hour at a management position in his local Hannaford. He’s happily married, and would never cheat, but he does flirt with one of his coworkers. He’s afraid of computers, watches reruns of the X-Files to go to sleep, prefers ginger porn, exercises twice a week, and has a resting heart rate of 72 beats per minute. And the funny thing is, we don’t give a shit about Doug. Think about it.”
This is not about our adversaries. The adversaries the government would like us to believe they’re worried about are a motley bunch of underfunded lunatics with no more understanding of information technology than Doug. This is about an attempt at perfect control of information, which happens somewhere every time information technology gets updated, is always at the expense of the people depending on the system making the attempt, and is always, ALWAYS both impossible and a huge mistake.
We’ll see how the appeal goes, but I’m not optimistic.