Talking with We Are Always Listening, the NSA Pranksters Who Are Recording New Yorkers in Conversation

A screenshot from Waal's website.

They’ve hidden tape-recorders underneath tables in New York restaurants and in unassuming corners of a Crunch Fitness gym. They’ve recorded the conversations of people who were certain of their own privacy. They’ve put the recordings online for anyone to listen to and claim they will not stop anytime soon. The organization We Are Always Listening (WAAL), or the “NSA Pranksters” as the media has dubbed them, fashion themselves as a pro-bono NSA contractor–a sort of defacto outfit that surveilles the communications of private citizens for purposes of national security.

WAAL claims their efforts are meant to stoke support for NSA surveillance, but in a climate where most Americans oppose the collection of their metadata and where presidential hopefuls run on platforms of similar opposition, it makes sense that WAAL’s initiatives are seen as satirical, or at least taken with a hint of skepticism.

Before congress votes to repeal or reinstate three provisions of the Patriot Act that will either reign in or approve further NSA surveillance, we decided to speak with an “agent” from WAAL about what the group hopes to achieve and about their future plans.

Brooklyn Magazine: Why are you doing this and what do you hope to achieve?
WAAL: The fight against terror is critically important. We hope to assist the NSA in the hunt for terrorists domestically. At the moment we function in an unpaid, pro-bono capacity but hopefully the NSA will appreciate our efforts and see fit to hire us as a third-party contractor.

If what you’re doing is illegal, do the illegal actions of the NSA excuse your illegal actions?
If the NSA’s actions are deemed illegal and they are forced to stop, then we will obviously curtail our efforts as well. Thus far, despite a court ruling that their domestic surveillance techniques are illegal, the NSA has not been asked to stop, so we forge ahead as well.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act had been interpreted by the NSA to permit collection of metadata only (the numbers called, numbers dialed from, length of conversation, etc.) aren’t you going further than the NSA by putting the actual dialogue of certain conversations online and within reach of anyone?
The NSA has the ability to listen to the *content* of your phone calls. They need to ask a secret court to okay a warrant first. According to data from the ACLU, in 99.7% of cases, the court says YES, but there’s that nagging 0.3% of cases, where the court says no. We wanted to pick up the slack.

Some of WAAL's tape recorders. Photo: Wearealwayslistening.com

How do you hope to win the support of ordinary people when you are invading their privacy? Isn’t that arrogant on your part?
Our actions are truly in line with what the NSA has been doing for years. Most citizens haven’t been contacting their representatives to tell them to vote against the NSA’s actions. So we believe they will accept our actions as well.

Are the venues you picked to record conversations strategic? Did you hope to reveal things about a certain demographic?
We’ve chosen places where people have ordinary conversations. This is what the NSA has done by collecting the metadata of everyone. While none of these ordinary conversation have involved plotting of a terrorist nature, we are not disappointed because the NSA’s data collection hasn’t led to foiling a terrorist plot either. And we have the side benefit that the information we’ve collected could be used strategically to discredit people if that became necessary.

How many people are there involved in your operation and who are you–what kind of jobs and backgrounds do you have?
We would prefer not to comment on the size of our organization or the backgrounds of our agents. Doing so could jeopardize the mission.

Will your efforts cease and desist if the three Patriot Act provisions are repealed on June 1st?
If the NSA ceases domestic surveillance, we will fall in line with that decision.

Are you for or against surveillance as a national security tactic?
Surveillance of ordinary citizens is the perfect tactic for anyone whose mission deals with “national security,” because in order to assure national security you first need to create national insecurity.

What can we expect going forward from WAAL?
More recordings, from more places, including locations outside of NYC.

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Sam is an assistant editor at Brooklyn Magazine. His work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, Vice and the Village Voice. He enjoys eating food and playing drums and sometimes training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He's originally from the most ironic place in the world, Los Angeles. Twitter: Blumnessmonster

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