The Washington Post revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting the e-mail address books of potentially tens of millions of American citizens
The collection program, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts e-mail address books and “buddy lists” from instant messaging services as they move across global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronizes a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers.
. . .
Contact lists stored online provide the NSA with far richer sources of data than call records alone. Address books commonly include not only names and e-mail addresses, but also telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information. Inbox listings of e-mail accounts stored in the “cloud” sometimes contain content, such as the first few lines of a message.
. . .
two senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that it sweeps in the contacts of many Americans. They declined to offer an estimate but did not dispute that the number is likely to be in the millions or tens of millions.
While I'm smiling thinking of anyone who made fun of me for still having a paper Rolodex in the digital age, as an attorney, this is a stunning breach of confidentiality. If I had my client contacts (many of whom have been criminally prosecuted under the Espionage Act) stored electronically, attorney-client privileged communications would be severely compromised.
The concern is not limited to attorney-client privileged information. Anyone with a confidential to sensitive relationship - doctors, counselors, psychologists, financial advisors - is at risk of losing their confidentiality. The NSA has secretly abolished legally-protected confidentiality, which infringes professionals' ability to conduct their business in accordance with ethical obligations.
Since June of this year, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has made revolutionary disclosures that opened Americans' and the world's eyes to the surveillance state the U.S. has secretly and systematically expanded since 9/11. The dragnet collection of Americans' electronic data does far more than undermine confidential relationships. It is a direct affront to the First Amendment, the freedom to speak and associate.
Former CIA official Ray McGovern, two other former recipients and I recognized Snowden's whistleblowing last week when we traveled to Russia to present him with the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence in person. Snowden explained the chilling effect of dragnet mass surveillance:
These programs don't make us more safe. They hurt our economy. They hurt our country. They limit our ability to speak and think and live, to be creative, to have relationships and associate freely.
. . .
There's a far cry between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement, where it's targeted, it's based on reasonable suspicion, individualized suspicion, and warranted action [versus] . . . dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under . . . an eye and sees everything even when it's not needed.
The collection of tens of millions of Americans' address books is certainly the type of dragnet surveillance that does not make us safer but does give the surveillance state the unchecked power to, at any given moment, target innocent people based on their associations, speech, religion, race, or political affiliation. Such unchecked power is antithetical to a free society.