This week saw a high-profile We the People petition calling for the United States to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Some 55 tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Reddit and many other household names, joined the Center for Democracy and Technology to ask for changes to the law that they say allows the government to hoover up large amounts of data without requiring a warrant.
The petition makes some good points, but that's not the development that made me realize once and for all that the NSA's surveillance efforts have spun completely out of control.
Looking for terrorists in all the wrong places
No, that took the revelation that the NSA isn't just tracking (seemingly) everyone's email communications - it's also busy hunting for terrorists amidst the gamers on World of Warcraft. Second Life, Xbox Live, and similar online environments.
To steal a line from Saturday Night Live's popular Weekend Update segment: Really!?!
Did the NSA really expect to find terrorists lurking on these games? According to an 2008 memo, yes they did, calling the games a "target-rich communication network," according to the New York Times, which saw the documents.
To be fair, there may be plenty of terrorists playing these games, but did the NSA really think they were going to be discussing, you know, terrorist stuff, amidst the smack talk and general inanity? Enough to go ahead with the effort, apparently, and even try to recruit gamers as informants.
You can't make this stuff up
You couldn't make up this stuff, even if you were trying to make the surveillance efforts look silly. Of course, there's no record of actually catching any terrorists this way, or even finding any incipient threats on these services. In fact, the fattest targets may have come from other spies, to the point where "a 'deconfliction' group was needed to avoid collisions" with other agencies while looking for bad guys.
No, their only real accomplishment has been to reveal just how paranoid and clueless these spying efforts have become - taking on a life of their own apart from any real-world connections. Not only does that not make anyone any safer, it impedes trust in the government's ability to conduct even needed surveillance wisely and appropriately. Especially as it's not entirely clear that NSA had the legal right to spy on Americans in this way.