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Telcos, U.S. Government Collecting Phone Records of Thousands of Latinos and others Calling Latin América

December 17, 2007

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This article in yesterday’s New York Times (NYT) reports on how major telecommunications companies are helping U.S. intelligence agencies collect the phone records of thousands of citizens and non-citizens that call Mexico, Colombia and other Latin American countries. According to the report,

“To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified.”

The National Security Agency(NSA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other government agencies have been gathering the phone records for several years. News of the telecommunications industry-government collaboration is coming out now because Congress is currently considering legislation that will shield the companies from lawsuits stemming from their support of government eavesdropping.

Reports of U.S. government snooping on Latino and other citizens are nothing new. While the government has likely included Latinos in its intelligence gathering activities since such activities were organized by agencies like Herbert Hoover’s FBI, documentation of the snooping began in earnest only until relatively recently. As reported on this blog previously,

“While (Lyndon) Johnson was signing into law the official celebration of Latinos (Hispanic Heritage month) in 1968, he also signed documents authorizing the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program or “COINTELPRO” to give another big government abrazo (embrace) to the growing chorus of dissident Latino voices. Cesar Chavez, student groups, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords and those who yelled “Viva!” during the “Walkout” in Los Angeles were but a few of those greeted by COINTELPRO during that first year of Hispanic Heritage.”

What is new are the numerous and growing number of ways the private sector collaborates with and benefits from the electronic surveillance components of what critics call the “national security state” apparatus being built since before 9-11. Again, even the NYT article hints at the bigger issues when it says,

“But the battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government’s extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.”

Further on, the article explains the technological reasons behind the government’s urgent need of telecommunications and other companies collaboration in designing the surveillance systems of the post-industrial age,

“The federal government’s reliance on private industry has been driven by changes in technology. Two decades ago, telephone calls and other communications traveled mostly through the air, relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The N.S.A. could vacuum up phone, fax and data traffic merely by erecting its own satellite dishes. But the fiber optics revolution has sent more and more international communications by land and undersea cable, forcing the agency to seek company cooperation to get access. “

As Peter Swire, former chief counselor for privacy at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton administration, told me a couple of years ago, “We used to think of Big Brother as things like government wiretaps, where government is directly receiving the information”. “Today,” says Swire, “the datafeed doesn’t come from a government telescreen like in 1984. The datafeed now comes from your phone calls, your tax records, your bank transactions, your social security number, your grocery purchases, your insurance claims, your credit history, your medical records.” So, Latinos aren’t alone in this one.

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I’ve written previously on how these ongoing and expanding collaborations between government and the private sector in the network age make nakedly obvious the inadequacy of the industrial age”Big Brother” metaphor. At a time when digital technology has turned everyone from parents with camera-embedded teddy bears to world’s largest employers into snoopers and eavesdroppers, we should be talking not solely about “Big Brother” state surveillance but also about nano-cousins, Little Teddy’s, micro-brothers and other descendants of the now thoroughly dead surveillance systems depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” in the analog era (see “Enemy of the State” to get a more contemporary sense of what decentralized surveillance looks and feels like). The private sector, not “Big Brother” is now the hands-down largest collector of information about human beings regardless of their legal status.

And Latino Immigrants and Latin migration provide another rationale for further investment in the covert gathering of information on citizens and non-citizens. Allegedly designed to “control” immigrants, laws like the REAL ID Act of 2005, for example, will end up creating what the Electronic Privacy and Information Center calls a “de facto national identification card” that will make rich companies like national ID cheerleader Larry Elllison’s Oracle even richer.  Last year, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe offered (and later “calirified”)to put microchips in seasonal workers coming to the U.S. Up until 2003, U.S.-based database company Choicepoint was selling the U.S. government the personal information of more than 65 million Mexicans. This year witnessed the further implementation of the multi-billion ($8 billion or more) electronic surveillance components of the Secure Borders Initiative (SBI) by military industrial companies like Boeing.

So, this recent report of U.S. government snooping on Latinos and others comes atop a colossal, growing mountain of private information about migrants, citizen and others. Find out more about the privacy policies of telcom and other companies you deal with because they just may be selling your privacy to the government or some other bidder.