By Claude Salhani - Trend:
Think carefully before you make your next call on your cellphone and think twice about what you are going to say because there are pretty good chances that your conversation is going to be recorded and your geographic position mapped by the National Security Agency, one of the largest of the US's spy agencies.
But if numbers are any consolation, you will not be alone. If fact, your conversation will be just one of approximately five billion mobile phones that are recorded by the NSA every day, reports the Washington Post.
The current world population stands at about seven billion. The NSA records five billion calls a day. What are the odds of being listened to?
Not as widely known as the CIA, the agency tasked with gathering intelligence and defending the interests of the United States, the NSA in comparison has fewer staff, but a lot of very sophisticate electronic toys for its specialists to play with.
The NSA has the second largest budget at $10.8 bn, just behind the CIA which gets $15.7 bn, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages satellite surveillance receives $10.3 bn annually. Along with 13 other spy agencies these make up what is commonly referred to as the US intelligence community, an enterprise that employs 107,035 people and together have a yearly "black budget," of $52.6 bn, meaning they don't have to disclose to the Congress or to the American people how they spend that money.
These figures were secret until recently disclosed earlier this week to the Washington Post by Edward Swowden, the former NSA analyst who turned on his former employer and revealed to the Post this information in a report of 107 pages, much of which was redacted by the newspaper in the interest of national security.
The NSA uses the data it collects to track individuals they know and then cross-references them with data they may have on other people whom they may suspect. "The data is said to help the NSA track individuals, and map who they know, to aid the agency's anti-terror work," reported the Washington Post.
A number of digital rights groups have condemned the move, and asked the NSA to stop this global snooping, including on American citizens in the United States.
Microsoft, the software giant based in Seattle, Washington, said it planned to use more encryption to thwart NSA spying on it and its customers. But any counter measures taken by the software industry is likely to be only temporary as the US government is most likely to eventually develop counter measures and continue with its snooping programme.
The ability and scope with which the NSA is able to map movements of literally hundreds of millions of people, the newspaper says, has advanced "in ways that were "previously unimaginable."
The newspaper added that the programme "surpassed any other NSA project in terms of its impact on privacy."
The article stated that the NSA now had so much data that it had outpaced itself and that the spy agency needed 27 terabytes of space to hold all the information it had amassed.
The system used by the NSA is so sophisticated that it can track even the people who switch off their phones, thinking that they will be sheltered from the US spying eyes in the sky and vast network of computers used to tap phone systems. The vast majority of the information gathered is said to come from taps installed on mobile phone networks and used the basic location-information that networks log as people move around. Analysing this data helps the NSA work out which devices are regularly in close proximity and, by implication, exposes a potential connection between the owners of those handsets.
Many Americans and a number of organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union are protesting the fact that the US government is spying on its own citizens and on foreigners living in the United States.
There is indeed a moral dilemma here; should the government, any government spy on its citizens? The immediate reply should be absolutely not. The reality is another matter all together.
First, while many countries may criticize the United States for spying on its citizens, there a number of countries who secretly wish they could only afford a tiny percentage of the $52.6 bn the US spends on maintaining its 16 spy agencies. And second, while the government - any government - should not spy on its people, current norms in the ongoing war against groups who use terrorist tactics demands special tactics from those who are tasked with protecting the innocent and democracy. No one ever said war is pretty and fighting demands dirtying one's hands.
Claude Salhani is political analyst and senior editor of the English Service of Trend Agency in Baku, Azerbaijan. Follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani