Now that the Senate has voted down the USA Freedom Act and the NSA is preparing to dismantle its bulk surveillance programs, you might be feeling pretty good. Maybe you woke up feeling a little lighter than usual, thinking you could go about having conversations willy-nilly, without worrying about any unwanted third parties listening in. Well, think again — at least if you're in New York City. A group of activists recently launched the project We Are Always Listening, a library of private conversations recorded (illegally) at bars, coffee shops, and gyms around the city.
The group claims to be a collective of NSA spies working on a "freelance, pro bono basis." "We're looking for terrorism, we're looking for signs of plots and schemes that could put the homeland at risk," one of the members told Gothamist.
Is there a union for freelance spies?
The project seems to be a (perhaps unsubtle) commentary on the NSA's ham-fisted approach to bulk data collection. One section of the site redirects to an ACLU page urging people to ask their representatives to let Section 215 of the Patriot Act (a clause that allows the FBI to order the secret collection of "tangible things") die. Although it seems likely Section 215 will dissolve when sections of the Patriot Act expire on June 1st, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has scheduled a last-minute session for May 31st to try again to pass the Freedom Act.
For now, there aren't many identifying factors attached to the recordings, although you can make out first names. The project is a more straightforward form of the eavesdropping you sometimes can't avoid in public spaces. It's a reminder that people have conversations that can be as mean and ridiculous as they are dull. This man talks about having sex like he's in a scene from Batman Returns. This group agrees that "Kevin" is "trying too hard to be one of us." One recording from a Crunch gym has a woman discussing her plans to finish reading a book and watch House of Cards. One man talks for almost two minutes about the lack of heat and air conditioning in his apartment. Victims of surveillance — they're just like us.
Of course, these two-minute snippets are completely stripped of the context of actual human existence, and so I may be getting a grossly inaccurate read of these people. Huh!