The new documentary 1971, about the formerly anonymous FBI burglars who exposed the crimes of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, debuted to a rapt audience at the Tribecca film festival last night. As the filmmakers noted in an interview with the AP, the parallels between Nixon-era FBI whistleblowers and Edward Snowden's NSA revelations are almost eerie in their similarity.
But while the NSA connection seems obvious, the movie will actually shed light on the domestic intelligence agency with far more power over ordinary Americans: the modern FBI.
Everyone seems to forget that the FBI is the NSA's primary partner in the latter's domestic spying operations and that, in fact, the NSA's job would be impossible without them. Whenever you see a company deny giving any data to the NSA remember: It's because it's not the NSA asking (or demanding) the information of them, it's the FBI. They use the same Patriot Act authorities that the NSA does, and yet we have almost no idea what they do with it.
In fact, the FBI has gone to extreme lengths to just keep their surveillance methods a secret from the public, just like the NSA. And the more we learn, the scarier it gets.
On Monday, the EFF revealed through its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that the FBI's "next generation" facial recognition program will have as many as 52m photographs in it next year – including millions that were taken for "non-criminal purposes." It's massive biometric database already “may hold records on as much as one third of the U.S. population,” EFF found.
Lavabit, the email provider once allegedly used by Edward Snowden, also lost an appeal this week, leaving its founder Ladar Levinson in contempt of court for failing to hand over Lavabit's encryption keys to the FBI that would have exposed all 400,000 users of Lavabit. The court failed to rule on the larger issue – leaving the door open for the FBI to try it again.
And we know they want to. Foreign Policy's Shane Harris reported last year, the FBI "carries out its own signals intelligence operations and is trying to collect huge amounts of email and Internet data from U.S. companies – an operation that the NSA once conducted, was reprimanded for, and says it abandoned." The FBI's activities include trying to convince "telecom carriers and Internet service providers to install [port readers] on their networks so that the government can collect large volumes of data about emails and Internet traffic."
We also know they routinely get cell phone location information without a warrant. (If you want to see how your cell phone location information reveals almost every detail of your life, watch this amazing ACLU video.) We also know they're using Stingray devices, which are fake cell phone towers that vacuum up all cell phone activity in a particular area.
We know that the FBI is still issuing thousands of oversight-free National Security Letters a year, despite multiple government reports detailing systematic abuse, and a federal court ruling that they are unconstitutional last year. (The ruling was put on hold pending appeal.)
The FBI has pushed Congress and the White House – and reportedly quietly lobbied the tech companies – to support a dangerous overhaul to wiretapping laws that would require Internet companies like Google and Facebook to create a backdoor into their services, giving the FBI direct access if they get the requisite legal authorities. And, at the same time, the FBI also wants to be able to expand their ability to hack suspects' computers.
(At least some judges have been pushing back, noting that the trove of information that the FBI can get from hacking suspects is often far beyond what the agency's investigation requires.)
Worse, Wired discovered FBI training materials in 2012 that told agents they had the "ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others," in national security cases. The materials were quickly withdrawn when they became public.
All of this leads to why a comprehensive report released by ACLU late in 2013 called the FBI a "secret domestic intelligence agency" that "regularly overstepped the law, infringing on Americans' constitutional rights while overzealously pursuing its domestic security mission."
After watching 1971, or reading Betty Medsger's corresponding book The Burglary, it should be a scandal to everyone that the FBI building is still named after J. Edgar Hoover. Unfortunately, his ghost also still seems to permeate in much of what they do.