“You’ll find it taped under the third table on the right,” the end of the email read.
I went to a lunch cafe in midtown Manhattan, the kind where respectable business types go to grab quick bite from the office. Sure enough, there it was as promised: a running tape recorder, capturing the conversations of the people around me at the busy lunch hour.
It was put there by a duo of anonymous privacy activists who are raising awareness about NSA surveillance and the soon-to-expire Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which the NSA has used to justify much of its bulk data collection. These activists have taken on the personae of freelance NSA agents–contractors–who are trying to fill in the gaps in the NSA’s massive surveillance program.
“We were very inspired by the actions of the NSA,” says a man who identifies himself to me only as Agent 01. “We felt like there might be a potential to help out because we also want to fight terror in the homeland.”
On the website for this project, We Are Always Listening, you can find some excerpts from the tape recorders placed in cafes and bars around New York City. Their hope is that by making this kind of egregious surveillance of ordinary people obvious, people will get upset. And if people get riled up over conversations in a cafe being recorded, then they should be just as upset about their phone calls being recorded. The website provides a link to an ACLU petition encouraging Congress not to renew Section 215.
The agents don’t expect there to be much public support for the petition, however.
“The media seems to believe that citizens don’t have a problem with this kind of surveillance we’re undertaking,” says Agent 01. “There was very little critical discussion when the PATRIOT Act was first passed. And there hasn’t been a ton of public outcry about letting it expire now. So if these were really vital issues that the public felt were close to their hearts, we’d imagine there would be a loud vocal resistance.”
There was nothing particularly salacious on the recording device I recovered at the cafe I was directed to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t contain valuable information for the NSA.
“The NSA’s policy is to cast as wide a net as possible,” says Agent 02. “And much like the NSA’s bulk call records collection, no terror plots have been found through our surveillance of everyday conversations. There are lots of things we can glean from people’s everyday conversations that could be of great interest to national security, should we ever need to discredit someone we would know their sexual preferences, medical conditions, who their associates are, whether they see a therapist, and so forth.”