How The NSA, DEA, Postal Service & More Government Agencies Are Watching You

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This week, Reuters reported on the activities of the DEA's secretive Special Operations Division (SOD), which aggregates information supplied by multiple government agencies and funnels it to various individual law enforcement officers for use in drug cases. It's been a summer of snooping, and we think it's as good a time as any to look at what these individual agencies can do surveillance-wise — or rather, what they can do that we know about. Click on to find out how you're being watched...

5 Government Agencies and How They Snoop

This week, Reuters reported on the activities of the DEA's secretive Special Operations Division (SOD), which aggregates information supplied by multiple government agencies and funnels it to various individual law enforcement officers for use in drug cases. It's been a summer of snooping, and we think it's as good a time as any to look at what these individual agencies can do surveillance-wise — or rather, what they can do that we know about. Click on to find out how you're being watched...

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)

As it turns out, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has a secret division — the Special Operations Division, or SOD. The SOD unit collects information collected by various surveillance agencies — NSA, DHS, IRS and so on — and supplies it it to federal, state and and local law enforcement officials prosecuting drug cases. The thing is, the prosecutors aren’t allowed reveal their involvement with SOD to the defendants, their legal teams, and sometimes even the judges; instead, they’re forced to backwards engineer a legitimate investigation to present at the trial. Those cases that do go to trial are often dropped because the evidence provided by SOD wouldn’t have held up in court. 

The National Security Agency (NSA)

In June, former CIA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of several far-reaching, constitutionally-questionable surveillance programs operated by the NSA in the name of counterterrorism. These programs are numerous, with names that sound like MS-DOS programs (“PRISM,” “XKeyscore”), but the net effect of them is that the NSA has the ability to monitor both the content of every private digital communication between two American citizens (emails, phone calls, etc) and the circumstances of these communications.The fact that the NSA is engaging in these data collection techniques makes DEA revelations all the more insidious, as it would suggest that information collected in the name of counterterrorism is potentially being used to fight the drug war. 

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Homeland Security monitors social networking sites for various keywords that might imply or suggest terrorist activity. Many of these keywords sound like reasonable targets for scrutiny (“Al Qaeda,” “domestic security,” “terrorism”) while others seem a lot more innocuous (if “plot” is indeed a red flag on social media, we can’t imagine how many aspiring screenwriters are now under DHS surveillance). 

More concerning are revelations regarding the agency's use of drones. The Predator B Drones, ostensibly used to monitor the U.S.’s northern and southern borders, have domestic surveillance capabilities built into them — including the ability to intercept electronic communications. Legal authorization to use drones has been granted to local police departments, and drones have been used to resolve domestic disputes that clearly have nothing to do with national security (including one involving reimbursement for cow feed in North Dakota).

Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

In a story designed to fuel conservative fever dreams, the ACLU obtained documents last April suggesting that the IRS, through a broad interpretation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, believes that warrant requirements only apply to unopened emails or voice mails less than 180 days old. In other words, if you’d opened your email (or it was more than 6 months old) it was fair game for the IRS to read without a warrant.  

A 2010 court case, United States v. Warshak, changed this. The ruling required government agencies to obtain probable cause before compelling Internet service providers to turn over users’ emails, but it’s unclear whether the IRS has actually changed its practices to comply with this (the text on its own website would imply that it has not).

The United States Postal Office (USPS)

Don’t even think about using snail mail to avoid wandering eyes. The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, operated by the USPS, photographs the exterior of every piece of mail that’s processed in the US and catalogues it for future reference. It was created after the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people, but its reach wasn’t revealed until earlier this summer.