It used to be that the government did things itself. Put a man on the moon? Form NASA and get to work. Spy on the Soviets? Create the CIA and start sending fake nuns to St. Petersburg (Leningrad for you historical types.) Foment a revolution? Send the marines into the Bay of Pigs. (Oh, wait — That one we didn’t do ourselves. Sorry.)
One of the big, highly unappreciated advantages of this approach is that, regardless of the inefficiency and red-tape inherent in the process, it provides accountability, both before and after the fact. If the NSA or the FBI or anyone else in the employment of government wants to directly collect information about American citizens, they have to deal with pesky things like warrants, court orders, and civil rights lawsuits.
Nowadays, however, the government is doing far, far less in the way of project execution itself, and the implications should be deeply troubling to anyone who doesn’t want the NSA looking at pictures of their butt taken the last time they were on the crapper. Why? Because the NSA doesn’t have to take the pictures, of course! Not only are big companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and every other one you’ve heard of collecting this data in massive quantities and providing it to the government, they’re actively discouraged from admitting they’re doing so. The NSA is even building a massive data center in the middle of the country, right next to twelve major data centers and several cross-country fiber optic networks, to make it easy for these companies to send the data their way.
But wait! There’s more!
Because these are private companies we’re talking about, they’re not acting as government agents. Ergo, all those little annoyances like search warrants and civil liberties are completely obviated. And as it turns out, they’re even willing to collaborate with their competitors to make it easier for the government to do one-stop-data-shopping.
Consider for example this article about U.S. mobile phone carriers planning a massive centralized database of cell phone numbers and IDs. The purpose is ostensibly to make it easy to shut off services to a phone reported as stolen. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if this system were also used by the government to quickly and easily find any particular cell phone user in the country, without having to figure out which carrier he or she is using. (Also note how this article hit the papers shortly after the government lost the ability to do warrant-less location tracking via GPS device, which will likely eliminate their ability to do so via the
victim’s suspect’s cell phone.)
I’m all in favor of a smaller, less expensive federal government. However, if we don’t introduce some accountability into this system of the feds using private companies to do their dirty work, we’re all going to live in a far less free society in the very near future.
4/27/2012 UPDATE: Slashdot is covering a story about how the FBI has an office located inside a non-profit whose specific mission is to pass information about us and our online activities from private companies to the feds.