The meta-data explanation  has now been unmasked as a mega-lie, according to the latest revelations from exiled National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
When Snowden first disclosed the extent of America’s national security state spying on the electronic lives of Americans, the Obama administration led  by the president himself said  the government was not looking at the details of one’s electronic communications, web searches and sites visited. Instead, it was looking at so-called “meta-data ,” which was akin to a phone bill listing calls but not listening in. On Wednesday, the White House declassified documents remaking  that same argument.
But Wednesday’s disclosure by Snowden, reported  by the U.K. Guardian, exposes that spin as a security state lie. The NSA has a computer program, called XKeyscore, that is its “widest-reaching” system for conducting digital dragnets. Screenshot presentations describing  its capacities boast that it can trace “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet,” including the content of emails, attachments, online seaches, websites visited, chats, phone numbers and user data. The 32-page slideshow  uses examples of tracking overseas targets, but the software can be used domestically as well.
Here are three breathtaking revelations about Snowden’s XKeyscore disclosure.
1. Internet privacy is dead. Snowden famously said, “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email” address. XKeyscore explains how this can be done. Obviously, the government cannot collect billions of electronic messages and transactions with no smart way to sift through them, including examining them at the most detailed level. XKeyscore is the sifting and storage system for doing so. But technical capacities aside, the bottom line is online privacy is completely dead. The government now can collect dossiers on anyone down to the most intimate details of their lives. In contrast, Wednesday's White House release only concerned  the NSA's narrower telephone dragnet.
2. The security state has trumped the Constitution. Snowden’s latest revelation begins by saying that any government contractor working for spy agencies can access and use this system. They don’t need a search warrant. There is no judicial process to push back. And Congress has enabled that shadow government to grow without checks and balances, which directly conflicts with the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment banning  illegal searches and seizures. The Bill of Rights  enshrined the quartet of police search warrants, protection against self-incrimination, trial by jury and the credo of innocent until proven guilty in response to Great Britain’s 18th-century abuses of this nature. XKeyscore completely upends those constitutional protections.
3. The security state’s defenders won’t stop lying. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told the Guardian that Snowden is “lying. It’s impossible for him to do what he’s saying he could do.” But the Guardian’s latest article  is filled with screenshots  from the program that show how to search “within bodies of emails, webpages and documents.” It also mentions another NSA tool, DNI Presenter, that not only can read stored emails, but also “the content of Facebook chats or private messages.” The agency had to create software tools like this, the Guardian explained, quoting a retired NSA employee, because without them it would be left with mountains of data and no way to parse it.
Moreover, the NSA spin that its data tools would only be used  for overseas targets—to combat terrorism—doesn’t hold up because the NSA’s software tools do not discriminate between domestic and overseas targets. Everything is swept into the gigantic data-mining operation. And pledges that the NSA internally audits  its contractors work ring hollow, because those activities always come later—after searches are conducted in a crisis-driven environment.
The Upside to Snowden’s Brave New World
If there is an upside to Snowden’s latest disclosures it is that spying-as-usual has been unmasked and is deeply unnerving many Americans across  the political spectrum who care about privacy and intrusive government. It also shows the public that there is a national security state that currently answers to almost no one, regardless  of which political party controls the White House or Congress.
Exposing that Internet spying machinery to the public is probably the only way to begin pushing back and striking, as Washington lawmakers say, the balance between freedom and security. Right now, thanks to Snowden, we see that there is no balance.