The Wizardry of NSA’s MYSTIC

MysticWizards are mortals (but sometimes spirits) who study magic, including demonology, and conjure up supernatural powers to do their bidding for good or evil.  They are male witches, for the most part.  They can be mentors or villains and sometimes even heroes.  They may be relatively benign but often are dangerous. They are mythic, mysterious, mystical figures that operate in secrecy.  Their magic is sometimes identical to advanced technology (Arthur C. Clarke’s third law).

Mystics are practitioners of mysticism associated with the occult.  They seek to gain knowledge and power that is taboo.

The National Security Agency takes the wizard as its moniker for program MYSTIC.  It has adopted the occult and summoned the technological powers of the dark side to fight America’s war on terror.  Pondering the alchemy concocted by this kind of sorcery raises goose bumps.  Down which hole in the war state is NSA dropping us?

The wizard is often a playful, animated figure in popular culture.  But MYSTIC isn’t just good fun.  Wizards can assume many guises to cross ethical boundaries and undermine basic values.  They can transform us from an attitude of self-governance into a paranoid surveillance society.  This wizard is not a democratic trickster.

MYSTIC is NSA’s system for intercepting and reviewing, with the aid of RETRO (a program for retrieving recorded information), up to 100% of a foreign country’s telephone calls (Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, The Washington Post, March 18, 2014).  It is a time machine of indiscriminant surveillance.  It doesn’t collect metadata.  It is instead a call-recording program that vacuums up conversations and swallows entire telephone networks whole.  It scoops up not only the private conversations of foreigners but also any Americans with whom they may be talking.  Congress already has loosened restrictions on domestic surveillance.  Even a member of the President’s independent task force for reviewing U.S. surveillance policies recognizes that “advanced capabilities used overseas” can be “turned against our democracy at home.”  President Obama has rejected the group’s recommendation to purge incidentally intercepted U.S. calls from the data collected.

What happens if or when “we” become a “them,” when the public is deemed too unruly and unreliable, too susceptible to foreign influence, so that the powers that be, unconstrained by a shady “rule of law,” deploy their advanced technology of surveillance indiscriminately against a “radicalized,” or potentially radicalized, domestic enemy?  The black magic of unchecked executive power (routinely affirmed by secret courts and congressional committees or simply operating outside the scope of current laws) doesn’t call forth our better angels.



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