Day 6

Are anti-NSA pranksters invading people's privacy?

An anonymous group of anti-NSA pranksters has planted dozens of mini tape recorders around New York City. They're taping people's conversations - from the mundane to the intimate - and posting them to their website, posing as "pro bono" contractors for the NSA.

A group of pranksters is recording private conversations to highlight their concerns with the NSA.

Mini cassette tape recorders used by anonymous anti-NSA group, "We Are Always Listening" (Courtesy of www.wearealwayslistening.com)
Listen8:56

Civil liberties groups in the US say the National Security Agency's surveillance program amounts to illegal spying on innocent citizens. And now, a group of anonymous anti-NSA pranksters is trying to make a point about the surveillance of ordinary people by doing it themselves.

Over the past year, they've hidden dozens of mini tape recorders under tables and benches around New York City, secretly taping people's conversations. This week, they launched a website where they've posted some of their recordings. They range from the mundane, like a woman at a gym talking about her plans for the evening, to the intimate, like a man at a restaurant talking about his lover's fetishes. 

The people behind this project claim to be contractors working for the NSA, even though their website links to the ACLU's instructions on how to urge Congress to repeal part of the Homeland Security Act. They say they've launched a new "pro bono" pilot program on behalf of the agency - despite not having been asked by the NSA to do this. We talk to one of the project's creators about what they're trying to achieve, and ask how recording and posting unsuspecting people's conversations without their consent can be justified. We agreed to withhold his identity at his request.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why have you asked us not to reveal your identity?

Well, our operatives can really complete our mission with much greater efficiency if our identities are not known.

Are you worried about legal repercussions for yourself and for the project?

No. Our agents are not.

But to be clear, what you're doing is against the law New York State, because to record a conversation, one person needs to give their consent to being taped. So why are you doing this? 

If people were really bothered by this type of surveillance, we imagine that they would be sending their their feelings towards their government representatives to respond to the NSA's tactics. And certainly what we've been hearing over and over again is, "I'm not saying or doing anything wrong, so it's really fine if I am listened in on." So since we've heard the overwhelming response to the NSA's actions, we figured that we would step in and help with the NSA's actions. These people aren't doing anything wrong. They really have nothing to be concerned about and there should be no element of being surprised or hurt by an invasion of privacy. 

I think I understand the point you're trying to make about mass surveillance and about the NSA. But you're essentially trying to make that point by doing the same thing, which is violating people's privacy. 

You're certainly welcome to process it that way. We look at it as we're trying to keep the country and the world at large safe. Part of the freedoms that we're trying to protect are not just the freedoms of people's physical wellbeing, but people's freedoms to show dissent and speak up to power. We've given people a place at the site to express their dissatisfaction with with this type of surveillance. So if this type of surveillance really bothers them, there's really a way for people en masse to let their voices be heard and have this type of surveillance and data mining be stopped.

And so as you go about conducting this "surveillance," what are you doing to protect people's identities?

We have not released anybody's first and last names on the recordings. Through our data collection, we have heard people give their bank account numbers to their customer service representatives at their banks. People talk about passwords to different services that they use online and we've deleted those and not made those public. We have not released anything that would compromise any particular individual.

But you list the exact location of where the recorder was hidden and you're posting pictures of the locations too. Couldn't someone figure out who that person was, at a location talking about a specific thing? 

It's very interesting you say that, because the NSA can actually put together your whereabouts past, present and future with much less information than that. The NSA uses many, many, many third party contractors and we consider ourselves to be one of them, albeit in a freelance, pro bono non-official way.

A not asked way. 

No, no one has asked us yet, but we feel pretty confident that the NSA would approve of our actions, since we're really trying to aid them in their efforts. 

What if someone hears themselves on your website wants you to take the clip down? What are you going to do?

Well, there is an email address. So far, we haven't had that response. Our agents would have to really go over that and work on that on a case-by-case basis. So far, we haven't received any emails asking that to happen. And again, we have a place where people can vent their frustration to people much more powerful than us. We're a small organization. There's a big conversation happening and a debate and laws being changed on the Hill this week. So it would be a really good time for people to weigh in with their voices. 

There has been a long debate over privacy and the N.S.A. and CSIS, our spy agency here in Canada. What are you hoping that it's adding to the conversation?

What we're hoping to add to the conversation is people to have an awareness of how even the most mundane conversation reveals quite a bit about your life, your patterns of behavior. But it seems that there are people who are aware of that, because they've said quite loudly, as I've said before, "As long as I'm not doing anything wrong, I don't see why people have a problem with governments and their third party vendors that they work with knowing who I speak to, how often I speak to them, where I speak to them." And in some cases, you don't even really need to know and hear the conversation to know what you're speaking about. If the NSA understands that you're calling a doctor's office and a particular type of doctor over and over again, they don't need to listen to the details in the granular piece of those conversations to figure out what's going on in your life.

What's most interesting thing that you've heard on these tapes?

I don't think you have the security clearance to hear the most interesting pieces. And what's interesting to one might not be to another. So, that's really a judgment call that I'm not in a position to make. 

Okay you're helping the NS. do their job is what you're saying. 

Oh, absolutely. And we consider it a really important mission. But If the tactics and them completing their mission were deemed illegal or unconstitutional, we would immediately stop. 

Aren't you deceiving people? Your tape recorders actually say "Property of the NSA."

Well, we feel since we're working on behalf of the NSA, that we took the liberty to say that we're working for their mission, that this would be the best way to identify our devices. And if someone were to find one, we hope that they can just drop it in the mailbox somewhere and it would be delivered to the NSA and then that way, we can get our information even quicker to the NSA, rather than having to go to our website and listen to what we found they can get ahold of it that way. 

How would you feel if you were on the other side of this and one of your private conversations ended up online?

I assume my private conversations are being listened to by many. That's an assumption that most people should make, that their private comings and goings are not are not completely between the people that they think they're having them with.