The NSA isn’t the only three-letter agency that’s been quietly collecting Americans’ data on a mind-boggling scale. The country learned this week that the Drug Enforcement Agency spied on all of us first, and with even fewer privacy protections by some measures. But if anyone is surprised that the DEA’s mass surveillance programs have been just as aggressive as the NSA’s, they shouldn’t be. The early targets that signal shifts in America’s domestic surveillance techniques aren’t activists and political dissidents, as some privacy advocates argue—or terrorists, as national security hawks would claim. They’re drug dealers.
The DEA’s newly revealed bulk collection of billions of American phone records on calls to 116 countries preceded the NSA’s similar program by years and may have even helped to inspire it, as reported in USA Today’s story Wednesday. And the program serves as a reminder that most of the legal battles between government surveillance efforts and the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections over the last decades have played out first on the front lines of America’s War on Drugs. Every surveillance test case in recent history, from beepers to cell phones to GPS tracking to drones—and now the feds’ attempts to puncture the bubble of cryptographic anonymity around Dark Web sites like the Silk Road—began with a narcotics investigation.
“If you asked me last week who was doing this [kind of mass surveillance] other than the NSA, the DEA would be my first guess,” says Chris Soghoian, the lead technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The War on Drugs and the surveillance state are joined at the hip.”
It’s no secret that drug cases overwhelmingly dominate American law enforcement’s use of surveillance techniques. The Department of Justice annually reports to the judiciary how many wiretaps it seeks warrants for, broken down by the type of crime being investigated. In 2013, the last such report, a staggering 88 percent of the 3,576 reported wiretaps were for narcotics. That’s compared to just 132 wiretaps for homicide and assault combined, for instance, and a mere eight for corruption cases. (Read more from “Want to See Domestic Spying’s Future? Follow the Drug War” HERE)