06.12.13

Why I Am Blowing the Whistle

First there was Edward Snowden exposing the NSA’s secrets, and now it’s Nathaniel Stein’s turn to reveal his own spying.

After a great deal of anguished consideration, and at great personal risk, I have decided to come forward and reveal my secret. For years, I have been a spy, collecting information on American citizens without their permission, or indeed even their knowledge. I am not proud of the system I served, and yet I hope that my exposure of this kind of surveillance can offer some modicum of redemption for my participation in it.

To understand the nature of this surveillance, it might help to consider just one example—a single ordinary citizen who, from among millions of Americans, was subject to it: a young woman by the name of Linda Higgins.

Despite never having met Linda, I am privy to a great deal of her personal information, including her age (26), her physical appearance, the fact that she lives with two roommates on the second floor of a two-family house located three blocks southwest of where I live, and the pattern of her comings and goings, including to her job as assistant manager at a clothing store. Here is the scary thing: I was able to determine all of this, and a great deal more, simply by stationing myself in a car parked diagonally across from her house, and watching.

My surveillance of Linda went on constantly—seven days a week, 24 hours a day (except for naps)—for the better part of three years. And yet, in all that time, as far as I can discern, Linda was not even aware that anyone was conducting surveillance.

More disturbing still is the electronic record that Linda, like millions of others, leaves unwittingly every day for anyone who possesses the wherewithal to access it. Linda’s e-mail correspondence, her work and personal calendars, thousands of photographs and other media—even financial information, including her bank records—were all obtainable to me, simply by stealing her computer.

The scariest part of all may be that this information was available to me despite the fact that I am not employed by any official government agency, or by any unofficial government agency, or indeed by anything at all. In fact, I was recently fired from my job at Arby’s.

Who authorized my collection of this data? The answer, astonishingly, is no one.

I have come forward now because I don’t wish to continue living in a society in which this kind of thing goes on—in which people like Linda, who have committed no crime worse than G-chatting an ex-boyfriend late on a Saturday despite resolving two months earlier not to—are watched, and watched, and watched, until the person watching them can barely even remember not to say hi when passing them in the street.

Who authorized my collection of this data? The answer, astonishingly, is no one.

The problem is broader than just Linda. Using the tools at my disposal, I might have spied on almost any American citizen I chose. If not Linda, it could as easily have been her roommates Catherine and Sarah, or her downstairs neighbors Eugenia and Mary-Beth, nurses who work a night shift as often as twice a week. How many hundreds of thousands—even millions—of ordinary Americans are undergoing this kind of surveillance on a daily basis without knowing it? Right now, only Linda, Catherine, Sarah, Eugenia, and Mary-Beth. But others could soon follow.

Is this right? Is it moral? I cannot say. But I have come to realize that it isn’t up to me to decide. That isn’t my place. Nor is it the place of my superiors, who, if I had reported my concerns internally, would probably have brushed them off, or told me there was no problem with what I was doing, for one simple reason: these superiors do not exist.

Questions like this must instead be decided by the American public. I’m not suggesting that the answer is simple: we need to weigh both the costs and benefits of this kind of round-the-clock, intrusive surveillance. For example, there’s little question that had Linda and her roommates been hatching a terrorist plot, I would have been able to dismantle it. But was that worth it? Even setting aside the numerous false alarms generated by Linda’s (quite innocent, it turned out) use of her pressure cooker, was this slight benefit to our national security worth a complete stranger knowing the ins and outs of her semester abroad, or her recent fling with her co-manager Mitch, or her touching struggle with the Atkins diet?

We know what Linda would say—or at least we can guess, given our deep knowledge of her linguistic patterns. But what would Benjamin Franklin say? What would James Madison say? What, if it could talk, would the poster of John F. Kennedy that hangs on Linda’s north-facing wall, just to the left of the Sarah MacLachlan poster, say?

Finally, many will ask why I am coming forward publicly, instead of simply blowing the whistle and retreating into the shadows. By identifying myself, aren’t I inviting the prospect of my own government painting me as a traitor? Of the CIA rendering me and throwing me into a secret prison? The answer is simple. Revealing my identity was the only way I could say this:

Linda, will you marry me?