One hop, two hops, three hops… more? According to new information released this week, the NSA and other intelligence agencies and their ongoing surveillance of the public may be much broader than previously thought.

On Capitol Hill earlier this week, it was revealed that the National Security Agency uses surveillance technologies to observe metadata associated with many more Americans than most of us know. The Atlantic reported on Wednesday that NSA deputy director Chris Inglis, along with representatives from the FBI and the office of the Director of National Intelligence, had testified before the House Judiciary Committee about government surveillance and the effectiveness of programs under the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

According to statements made by Inglis, analysts are said to look at information based on metadata that may reach “two or three hops” from individuals suspected of terror plots or suspicious activity.

A “hop” refers to extending the search of metadata associated with phone calls and other electronic communications beyond terror suspects, and into circles of friends or associates that may have been recently communicated with that individual.

Controversy regarding government surveillance practices had initially led to much expected public outcry, though sadly, as further information continues to paint a broader picture of the scope of such programs, “public outcry” may soon dwindle to being merely “public apathy.” In other words, as people are exposed more and more to the breadth of surveillance operations, the initial shock of the news appears to settle, and on the whole, Americans may exhibit apathetic attitudes toward intelligence gathering that overreaches individual privacy more and more.

And yet, while so much information regarding the goings-on of government continues to be made public knowledge, regardless of how much the populace may or may not be desensitized to it all, some government employees have been warned that they are potentially subject to legal action should they so much as look at articles in the media regarding the leak of secret information, along the lines of the continuing saga of Edward Snowden, and others before him like Bradley Manning.

TechDirt.com carried the latest on the prohibitive measures:

The latest is that Homeland Security sent around a memo warning employees that merely opening up a Washington Post article about some of the leaks might violate their non-disclosure agreement to “protect National Security Information,” and it even says that merely clicking on the story might make the reader “subject to any administrative or legal action from the Government.” Got that? Working for the government and merely reading the news about things the government is doing might subject you to legal action.

And speaking of the release of previously undisclosed information to the public, recent revelations are now also showing that when pressed for information, some organizations are taking things to an even further extreme: withholding documents that are pertinent to official audit or review.

Earlier this week, Yahoo News reported that IRS Inspector General J. Russell George said before a Congressional Panel that he was disturbed by the fact that the Internal Revenue Service had apparently withheld documents, now made public, which shows that progressive liberal groups had also been targeted by the Agency.

At present, there have been three congressional committees that have led subsequent investigations, along with the Justice Department, leading to an overhaul of IRS acting leadership.

With the information about progressive liberal groups being targeted now coming forth, the Inspector General’s report had been accused of being biased in favor of conservative groups like the Tea Party. However, George says that knowledge of such activity across the political spectrum had not been omitted from his report, but instead had been withheld from him altogether by the IRS.

According to George, who defended himself against accusations of being one-sided with his report:

“[The documents] were not provided during our audit, even though similar documents that list ‘tea party’ but not ‘progressive’ were. I am very disturbed that these documents were not provided to our auditors at the outset, and we are currently reviewing this issue.”

The bottom line here is that not only are government surveillance programs looking possibly up to “three hops” beyond persons of interest in their search for potential terrorist activity, we’re also agencies like the IRS looking across a much broader swathe of the public, targeting groups on both sides of the the political spectrum. And furthering their seemingly ever-tightening grip, add to it all that we’re seeing government employees forbidden to observe news stories about certain information when it actually is released to the public, with promise of administrative penalties if they do. Is there any end in sight?

Whether or not that is actually the case, members of Congress have not responded well to what many perceive as an unconstitutional overreach of power with present levels of surveillance. On Wednesday, despite claims by members of the Obama administration that such programs already in use–as well as those yet to come–are absolutely necessary for the safety of America.

In what may have been the most thorough debate of its kind since the September 11 terror attacks of 2001, the House Judiciary Committee resulted in threats by Congress to take measures that would limit the ability for such surveillance to continue, and possibly grow into areas presently untapped that would include data regarding transaction and web browsing history also being collected. However, whether or not such areas truly remain outside the body of information that will be gathered by government agencies, or for all we know, may already be under surveillance by them, remains to be seen.

Image by David Drexler via Wikimedia Commons

 

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