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The NSA is tracking online porn viewing to discredit "radicalizers"

Sitting on the wire, the NSA has the ability to track and make a record of every website you visit. Today [27 November 2013], the Huffington Post revealed that the NSA is using this incredible power to track who visits online porn websites, and to use this information to discredit those it deems dangerous. Their porn habits would then be "exploited to undermine a target's credibility, reputation and authority."

The story was illustrated with six individuals, none of whom are designated terrorists themselves. Instead, they are deemed "radicalizers," people—two of which the NSA itself characterized as a "well-known media celebrity" and a "respected academic"—whose speeches and postings allegedly incite hatred or promote offensive jihad.

The report raises the specter of abusing online viewing records to discredit other political opponents of the US government. The NSA document was reviewed not just by the NSA and counter-terrorism officials, but by entities like the Department of Commerce and the US Trade Representative. The USTR negotiates treaties (like the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership), and one could certainly imagine that the leverage from this program could be useful in pushing for the US position. In fact, EFF and three dozen civil society groups have already asked the NSA to explain if they are spying on those advocating for the public interest in US trade policy.

Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the NSA, is quoted as saying one should not worry that the program would be used domestically, because we can count on our officials to know better. Baker forgets that the US government's past is replete with examples of abusing spying powers for domestic political gain.

As Cato Fellow Julian Sanchez points out, there is a lengthy and disturbing history of abuse. FBI Director "J. Edgar Hoover maintained a notorious 'Sex Deviate' file filled with salacious bits of information on the sexual proclivities of prominent Americans: actors, columnists, activists, members of Congress, and even presidents." Hoover used that information to ensure appropriations for the FBI and expand his political power. Likewise, the ACLU remembers the government's spying on the activities of Martin Luther King Jr., which "sought to compile a dossier of embarrassing information about King's private sex life that the government could (and did) employ to discredit King and obstruct his political efforts."

The administration keeps on attempting to justify the NSA spying by claiming there is oversight from the other branches of government. But, as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg noted in the Why Care About NSA Spying video, spying makes a mockery of that separation. How can that oversight be meaningful if the NSA's huge storehouse of information contains the private viewing habits of every senator, representative, and judge? When the only protection against abuse is internal policies, there is no serious oversight. Congress needs to take action now to rein in the spying.

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