As is often said in Washington, never let a good crisis go to waste. The national security state is visibly winding up to expand surveillance of the American people in the wake of the posting of sensitive U.S. government secrets in a Discord chat room by a 21-year-old airman.
Officialdom’s appetite for more domestic surveillance was already evident before the leak with the introduction of the vaguely drafted Restrict Act. This bill, which has significant bipartisan support, would give the Commerce Secretary sweeping powers to regulate all communications technology and much of the content that it carries. That bill would hit those deemed to have violated unclear parameters of Restrict’s allowable behavior with $1 million fines and 20 years in prison.
NBC News now reports that senior administration and congressional officials say the “Biden Administration is looking at expanding how it monitors social media sites and chatrooms.”
The only problem with monitoring chatrooms is that they are private discussions. Forgive our quaintness, but systematic intrusion into all of America’s chatrooms by government-operated AI would be a massive violation of the Fourth Amendment.
This would be an intrusion on such a scale as to trouble even many surveillance hawks. Consider former National Security Agency general counsel Glenn Gerstell, who has taken to the airwaves to tout the reauthorization of the highly problematic Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This is the authority that has been misused by the FBI to conduct backdoor searches of Americans’ communications. Even he sees the potential for overreaching here.
Gerstell told NBC News: “We do not have nor do we want a system where the United States government monitors private internet chats.”
Why, then, is this being considered? The government was mortified to learn that the leak had occurred and reported by The New York Times and open-source intelligence organization Bellingcat.
It would be a serious error to respond to a crisis that resulted from a poorly-designed system of security within the government and treat it as reason to increase domestic surveillance of the American people.