Olivia Pope, the iconic DC fixer from the hit primetime show ‘Scandal’, was mortified last season when she learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on regular Americans by using our own technology against us. A whistleblower showed her how NSA agents tapped into the private conversations of regular people using the cameras in their cell phones, laptops and computers to video record everything.
The character Olivia Pope may be fictional but the storyline, which aired a year before the NSA scandals broke, may have more basis in fact that we want to admit.
The NSA admitted in a letter to Republican Senator Chuck Grassley earlier this month that a number of agents used their access to spy on husbands, boyfriends, and ex-love interests. Woe on to those who date or marry an NSA agent!
In response to allegations of thousands of privacy violations, the Inspector General detailed 12 specific cases that included the following:
Among the cases cited in the NSA letter to Grassley is one of an employee who spied from about 1998 to 2003 nine telephone numbers of female foreign nationals without a "valid foreign intelligence purpose," and listened to collected phone conversations while assigned to foreign locations. The employee also collected the communications of a U.S. person on two occasions.
In another instance in 2004, an employee of the NSA tried "out of curiosity" a query of his home phone number and the phone number of his girlfriend, a foreign national. Although he was blocked by the system from collecting information on his phone as it was made on a U.S. person, he managed to retrieve metadata of his girlfriend's calls.
The Hill covers a couple other cases:
In one case, an analyst spied on a foreign phone number she discovered in her husband's cellphone, suspecting that he had cheated on her. She intercepted phone calls involving her husband, investigators discovered. The analyst resigned before any disciplinary action could be taken.
On one analyst's first day of access to the NSA system, he pulled records on six email addresses belonging to his ex-girlfriend. He claimed he just wanted to test the system. The NSA demoted him and docked his pay for two months.
I am skeptical that there were only twelve cases. Human nature and technology are powerful partners in crime as technology facilitates our desire to snoop into what doesn’t concern us, especially about the people whom we know.
It’s quite possible that these kinds of queries are executed by other NSA employees, but these twelve are the only reported incidents that have so far resulted in penalties to the offenders. That is in fact what NSA leadership said. Apparently analysts have violated legal restrictions on thousands of occasions in recent years –mostly accidentally.
Forgive me if I feel no less secure that a former beau or worse –a person with a grudge– could “accidentally” listen to my phone calls and use the information against me.
The salacious plots on DC-centric shows like ‘Scandal’ may be fictional, but unfortunately this one appears to be very real.