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4 May, 2021 11:49

Brace yourself, America! Biden reportedly considering increasing domestic spying powers

Brace yourself, America! Biden reportedly considering increasing domestic spying powers

Despite being publicly planned and promoted, the Capitol Hill riot apparently blindsided US intelligence. And that epic failure could now provide a rationale for keeping an even closer eye on citizens’ private lives.

In a May 3 exclusive, CNN alleged that Joe Biden’s administration is considering using external contractors to track “extremist chatter” by US residents both on social media platforms and via encrypted messaging apps. 

“Multiple sources” are said to have confirmed that discussions are taking place on the plan, which would allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to circumvent restrictions preventing it from spying on Americans “without justification,” or creating false identities to gain access to private forums, groups and messaging apps used by “extremist groups.”  

A nameless official was quoted as saying “domestic violent extremists” are “really adaptive and innovative,” not only “moving to encrypted platforms,” but speaking in opaque language online to avoid detection – thus apparently necessitating intensive monitoring of even innocent-seeming communications.

The new policy, if adopted, would “likely be beneficial” to both the DHS and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which likewise “can’t monitor US citizens in this way without first getting a warrant or having the pretext of an ongoing investigation.”

As with so many recent calls for enhanced surveillance powers and crackdowns on encryption, the January 6 Capitol Hill riot was invoked as the inspiration behind the push. CNN alleged that an “intelligence gap” contributed to the Department’s “failure to predict the assault” while contradictorily conceding that much of the riot’s planning “appeared out in the open” on social media platforms and apps “available to anyone with an internet connection.”

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Moreover of course, it was promoted on national radio, and authorized by the US National Park Service, meaning there’s even less justification for the DHS to be invested with far-reaching authority to monitor private communications.

In any event, the suggestion that rules preventing the DHS from baseless domestic spying are in any way a hindrance to the agency doing just that anyway is dubious in the extreme. In September, it was revealed the DHS had collected and disseminated intelligence on US journalists and private citizens covering protests in Portland, Oregon last summer.

In November that year, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion starkly exposed how the FBI is similarly unimpeded by legal provisions against warrantless spying, which are enshrined in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes the FBI to surveil without judicial approval anyone who isn’t a US citizen located outside the country, but only for foreign intelligence purposes – the FISC identified “widespread violations” of this precept by the Bureau, for the fourth year in a row.

Some Americans illegally probed in this manner were suspected of involvement in “healthcare fraud, transnational organized crime, violent gangs, domestic terrorism… [and] public corruption and bribery.” However, hundreds were individuals who’d merely applied to participate in the FBI’s own “Citizens Academy” program, which in a perverse irony seeks to increase awareness of the Bureau’s positive civic role among “business, religious, civic, and community leaders.” Others were professionals conducting repairs at FBI field offices, and even victims of crimes.

The National Security Agency (NSA) also has an artless means of getting around legislation barring it from mass spying on US citizens, via its sinister and extraordinarily intimate partnership with the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. The latter’s staff are simply embedded in NSA listening posts dotted across the US, where they intercept every phone call, text message, email, and more transmitted in the country every hour, then turn the information straight over to their American friends.

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One needn’t be a cynic to postulate that regulations prohibiting the creation of fake accounts online by the DHS aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on either. Numerous police departments across the US have in recent years used fake accounts to not only ensnare criminals but also infiltrate, monitor and disrupt protest movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

And in 2015, a Drug Enforcement Administration operative’s creation of a Facebook account in a suspect’s name – replete with “revealing” photos taken from her smartphone without knowledge or consent – to entrap members of a drug ring led to the victim receiving compensation. Although the Justice Department has pledged to review its policies in respect of bogus online identities, judges have frequently ruled this subterfuge to be a legitimate law enforcement tool, irrespective of the agency employing the tactic.

The reality is the Biden administration’s proposed attack on privacy is just the latest salvo in a long-running elite campaign against encryption, which has become turbocharged following the Capitol Hill riot. This assault began in earnest in July 2015, when then-FBI director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Bureau was concerned about “criminals and terrorists” using “advances in technology to their advantage,” including in the “horrific sexual abuse of children.”

He would further claim his agency had lost track of “dozens” of terrorism suspects due to encryption, although a subsequent assessment of court orders for access to encrypted devices conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union found the overwhelming majority related to drug crimes.

Nonetheless, Comey’s self-interested alarmism very much caught on with the mainstream media, which has subsequently portrayed encryption as the exclusive preserve of philanderers, drug dealers, pedophiles, assassins, and terrorists. In the wake of the incendiary scenes in the Capitol, “extremists” have been added to the mephitic mix. 

Analysis published in late February by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) identified scores of news outlets which promoted articles in January all propounding a single “clear” message – “far-right extremists are coming to a town near you and, thanks to evil billionaire-funded technology, the police are helpless to do anything about it.

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“There is a facile tendency to blame technology [encryption] for social-political problems, while at the same time heralding technology [surveillance] as a silver bullet against those problems,” FAIR concluded. “And while the problematic technology is typically accessible to everyday people, the exceptional technology is only available to those with power.”

US government aversion to encryption is rather incongruous, given that it has specifically sponsored and funded the development and promotion of encrypted messaging platforms. For example, Signal, which has risen to some prominence over the course of 2021, was financed to the tune of $2,955,000 by the Open Technology Fund (OTF) between 2013 and 2016, in order to ensure access to the app “at no cost around the globe.”

The OTF was created by US propaganda outlet Radio Free Asia in 2012, to support “internet freedom” technologies globally – as the New York Times reported the previous year, this push amounted to the creation and deployment of “‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems” enabling activists “to communicate outside the reach of governments.” An OTF advisory board member has even openly admitted “internet freedom” is “at heart an agenda of regime change.

Given encryption’s potential for undermining power, Washington’s keenness to prevent Americans from harnessing the same “freedom” it has doggedly worked to ensure citizens of “enemy” states can freely enjoy is entirely understandable. It provides a “safe space” to talk freely and openly about literally anything away from prying eyes, for anyone opposed to the state’s domestic and/or international agenda in any way.   

It’s not just “far-right extremists” who fall into that category, and crave such sanctuary – although one would never guess from the mainstream media, or pronouncements of ruling elites.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.