There are certain words I avoid saying. For example, I don’t say “stupid” around my daughters, if I can help it, because A) I’ve told them not to say it and B) the four-year old will come back at me with “Dad! That’s a bad word!!!”
No one likes to be chastised by their offspring.
There are other words I avoid, too, including several four-letter words better known as “swear words.” I also avoid words I find vulgar or offensive, words that sound angry or mean (generally, but I’m not perfect), and words that are racist or demeaning.
At the end of the day, though, I get to choose what words to avoid. No one is leaning over my shoulder checking to censure my speech. Well, not unless you count the four-year old above.
And, apparently, not unless you count the federal government. While I’ve long since decided that our society is becoming much more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than George Orwell’s 1984, there is something Orwellian about recent news that the watchful eye of the American security and intelligence community is surveying our electronic communications (read: the internet) of Americans for certain words and phrases. In an effort to avoid terrorist attacks (I assume), the smart guys at the Department of Homeland Security have come up with a list of words and phrases that they scan the internet to alert them to potential events that may threaten the US.
Ostensibly, the list is to monitor for security threats, not dissent. According to the Daily Mail Online, the Department of Homeland Security “insisted the practice was aimed not at policing the internet for disparaging remarks about the government and signs of general dissent, but to provide awareness of any potential threats.” You can find the full list in the Analyst’s Desktop Binder.
But do they have any business doing it? Last I checked, and perhaps I don’t check often enough, it’s none of the government’s business what I say or write. It’s not against the law for me to speak, but it is against the core principles of liberal democracy for government to spy on the people with out cause. It’s also against the law…right?
Usually. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has compiled a list of all applicable electronic surveillance laws on both state and federal levels, spying on what Americans do online, under federal law, “typically requires a court order issued by a judge who must decide that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been, is being or is about to be committed.”
That’s your Fourth Amendment rights at work. The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unwarranted “search and seizure.” The government–be it police, military, or tax collector–cannot search or take what is yours without first obtaining a warrant from a judge stating that there is “probable cause” that you have committed–or about to commit–a crime.
In recent years, though, this limit on “search and seizures” has been shifting as the definition of what is a search, and what is unreasonable and requiring of a warrant, has been shifting under the auspices of the “war on terror.” While it requires that the search not be “unreasonable” and that a judge issue a warrant, judges rarely deny the government’s request. ”Wiretaps can also be ordered in suspected cases of terrorist bombings, hijackings and other violent activities are crimes. The government can wiretap in advance of a crime being perpetrated. Judges seldom deny government requests for wiretap orders.” Further, under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”, 50 U.S.C 1801 et seq), ”there must also be probable cause to believe that the person is engaged in activities that “may” involve a criminal violation.” In 2001, the PATRIOT Act expanded surveillance to include internet communications, as long as they exclude “content.”
I’m not clear what “content” means, but if the government is watching for certain words in my internet communications, it must not mean “the things that are held or included in something” when that “something” is what I type or read online.
In other words, Big Brother is watching you and when ever you use certain words, he’s watching you closer.
Without further ado, here are the words that are on the list, as well as the federal agencies which use the list as a guide for their surveillance:
A couple observations on the words:
- They’re pretty broad. “Ice”? “Watch”? “China”? “Southwest”? “Electric”? Maybe they need to be used in conjunction with other words, and maybe the government search surveillance software has algorithms comparable to Google’s, but putting these kind of broad and general words on a watch list seems “unreasonable” and outside the bounds of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.
- Why are weather emergencies on a watch list? Any time there is a weather emergency, the internet in the area affected, or anywhere people are following the news about the area affected, will light up with these words. Does using them put your name on a list somewhere? Will that list be shared with the TSA and get you an extra screening when you fly?
One more question: should we care? A lot of this depends on what exactly the government is doing. How closely are they looking? Who is watching them to make sure they are monitoring only for security threats and not for dissent? Is it better that to be safe than worry about being watched?
- Location Bill Would Slow Down Investigations, Officials Say (pcmag.com)
- Words to Avoid Online If You Don’t Want to Join the Government’s Watch List [Security] (lifehacker.com)
- US requests for secret spying warrants rose to nearly 2K in 2011, and not a single one was rejected (boingboing.net)
- Top court to decide if data on work computer is private (ctv.ca)
- FBI Wants Greater Surveillance Powers (sjlendman.blogspot.com)