He’s look­ing at us, kid.

We learned last week, on the May 1 edi­tion of CNN’s Out Front with Erin Bur­nett, that our gov­ern­ment has been spy­ing on all of us for years. In the rel­e­vant por­tion of the tran­script, for­mer FBI coun­tert­er­ror­ism agent Tim Clemente tells us so matter-​​of-​​factly that he almost seems sur­prised that we didn’t already know:

BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obvi­ously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone com­pa­nies to give that up at this point. It’s not a voice mail. It’s just a con­ver­sa­tion. There’s no way they actu­ally can find out what hap­pened, right, unless she tells them?

CLEMENTE: “No, there is a way. We cer­tainly have ways in national secu­rity inves­ti­ga­tions to find out exactly what was said in that con­ver­sa­tion. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the inves­ti­ga­tion and/​or lead to ques­tion­ing of her. We cer­tainly can find that out.

BURNETT: “So they can actu­ally get that? Peo­ple are say­ing, look, that is incredible.

CLEMENTE: “No, wel­come to Amer­ica. All of that stuff is being cap­tured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”

At this point I don’t see any harm in dis­cussing it, though I’ve known about this for longer than I’d care to admit. One of the dif­fi­cult aspects of work­ing in the secu­rity realm is that I hear many things from many sources, and quite a few of them involve top­ics I can’t (or won’t) divulge to oth­ers. So it is in this case.

But now that the cat is out of the bag, it’s worth look­ing at this a bit more thoroughly. 

Once you know that all of our tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions are being recorded (and who knows what else is being done with them), it almost seems quaint to worry about “IMSI catch­ers”, which are used by the gov­ern­ment to per­form man-​​in-​​the-​​middle attacks on all cell phones within range. Why, in fact, would IMSI catch­ers be used when every­thing is recorded anyway?

Because IMSI catch­ers can be used with search war­rants, which allows the evi­dence col­lected to be used in court. The sorts of col­lec­tion and stor­age referred to by Clemente can­not. Of course, law enforce­ment agen­cies can (and do) use evi­dence col­lected through such means as a “hint” as to where to get evi­dence that can be used, as long as they can pro­duce a plau­si­ble expla­na­tion for how they man­aged to find the evidence.

J. Edgar Hoover: a man with many skele­tons in his closet.

Yes, I have infor­ma­tion on YOU.

Yet the court­room is one of the least inter­est­ing uses of infor­ma­tion col­lected from our tele­phone calls, text mes­sages, and emails (all of which are in that mag­i­cal data ware­house). J. Edgar Hoover fig­ured out a much bet­ter use: black­mail. Every­one has skele­tons in their closets…something that we’d rather the world at large, or cer­tain peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar, not to know. What bet­ter way to build a dossier on one’s polit­i­cal ene­mies than to know every­thing they’ve said on any phone call, text mes­sage, or email? And, unlike Richard Nixon’s CREEP, one doesn’t need to con­duct any third-​​rate bur­glar­ies to get the info.

There’s more that I can’t share, nat­u­rally, but here are a few tid­bits that I can tell you.

I’m pretty sure that not all dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions are tracked. Not because the gov­ern­ment doesn’t want to, and not because it isn’t try­ing to, but rather because it cannot…quite. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions that are encrypted end-​​to-​​end, with iden­tity val­i­da­tion on both ends and suf­fi­ciently com­plex encryp­tion, can­not be viewed by the gov­ern­ment. There are tools avail­able that pro­vide this level of encryp­tion, though the par­ties on both ends must use it.

At one time, Skype had such end-​​to-​​end encryp­tion. I hon­estly don’t know whether it still does. At the very least, peo­ple in China must use a ver­sion designed to allow the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to mon­i­tor the com­mu­ni­ca­tions. It’s pos­si­ble that the same applies in the United States for the ver­sion sup­plied by Microsoft. I wish I had the con­fi­dence to say that the Microsoft ver­sion does not have a decryp­tion back­door, but I just don’t know. Nor would I be able to find out.

Even in cases where we use end-​​to-​​end encryp­tion on our com­put­ers, it is not only pos­si­ble, but triv­ial, for our gov­ern­ment to plant spy­ware on all of our com­put­ers. That’s not to say that it is hap­pen­ing today; I have no knowl­edge one way or the other about that. But it’s pos­si­ble. And, as Tim Clemente dis­closed, as long as it’s pos­si­ble it even­tu­ally becomes not only prob­a­ble, but cer­tain, that it’s happening.

It’s shame­ful that we have a gov­ern­ment that bla­tantly vio­lates the Bill of Rights in this way. And it’s shame­ful that the Supreme Court is indem­ni­fy­ing them from such vio­la­tions, as long as they aren’t directly used in crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings. Sure, I don’t think that most of us are at risk, under our cur­rent lead­er­ship, by such prac­tices. But that merely means that we are beholden to the benev­o­lence of our lead­ers. Our Con­sti­tu­tion was designed explic­itly to not require us to be beholden to the benev­o­lence of our lead­ers. In fact, it’s writ­ten more like the X-​​Files mantra, “Trust No One”.

Ben­jamin Franklin is believed to have said, “Those who would give up Essen­tial Lib­erty to pur­chase a lit­tle Tem­po­rary Safety, deserve nei­ther Lib­erty nor Safety.” When we as a nation become com­plicit in this sort of behav­ior, we are demon­strat­ing our­selves to be wor­thy of nei­ther Lib­erty nor Safety. And we are surely des­tined to get what we deserve.