Secrets of Scandal: Hunting Season

By Jess Brownell, Researcher | Oct 18th, 2012

President Fitzgerald GrantWelcome back, Scandal fans! Did you miss us last week? As you probably know, we took a week off to air the Vice-Presidential debate. But we’re glad to be back with an episode all about revealing government secrets! ...Let’s hope the VP candidates weren’t tuned in or we might be in some trouble!

In this week’s episode, a very paranoid, low-level National Security Agency employee shows up in the back of Olivia’s car, but he’s not there to go on a ride—no, he’s there to ask Olivia to take on the largest intelligence agency in the United States. Artie Hornbacher has stolen a program called Thorngate that he claims can prove the NSA is spying on Americans, and he wants Huck to de-encrypt it so he can take it public. Besides being able to track telephone calls and written communication, Thorngate can also capture video by hacking into your computer or cell phone camera. It can watch you while you cry to Sleepless in Seattle on Netflix, or as you pretend to text a friend while on a bad date. ...Or whatever it is you do with your devices. Like Santa Claus, it knows when you’ve been bad or good.

So, what’s the reality of a program like Thorngate? Officially, spying on Americans is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. That means the government is supposed to have a warrant to search you—and that includes your emails, phone calls, and digital trail. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, the NSA recently admitted in a secret national security court that the agency had in fact violated the Fourth Amendment “on at least one occasion.” The catch? They won’t say when or how or how many times “at least” means. The agency is supposed to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court every time they eavesdrop on Americans, but since 9/11, the Patriot Act has allowed for a much looser interpretation of the FISA laws.

But is the government really gathering video footage of you through your cell phone or computer camera? The top-secret nature of the NSA’s work makes it hard to say. But if they’re not tapping in to your personal cameras, they’re definitely getting everything else under the sun. A recent Wired Magazine article details how the NSA is building a top-secret, one million square foot compound in Bluffdale, Utah, just to store all of the information it collects. That includes “private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches...parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’ information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications...and commuter toll records.” Sounds like a very special episode of Hoarders.

So, should you care? The debate between national security and civil liberties is as old as time (or, for some of you, as old as the Facebook privacy policy), and where you stand on it is up to you.  

Olivia Pope, for one, decides she definitely does care, perhaps because Artie outs her calls with the White House (aka President Fitzgerald Grant). Once Huck de-encrypts Thorngate, Olivia takes the exclusive to a major news network in the hopes that public exposure will start a battle cry against the NSA’s spying program. It’s a serious risk—Olivia’s up against the Patriot Act, the Espionage Act, jeopardizing the lives of individuals working on classified missions, theft of classified intelligence, aiding and abetting, obstruction of justice, and even treason, potentially.

But fortunately (or unfortunately), Pope & Associates never get that far, because Artie Hornbacher skips out on the interview and turns out to be a traitor, who is more interested in selling the now de-encrypted program to the highest bidder rather than exposing the NSA. He was using Pope & Associates all along—bigger, different problem. But the NSA deputy director knows the threat of exposure is too great, and gives Olivia time to return the program. Huck tracks Artie down with a little old-fashioned spycraft and the public will never know that Thorngate is a spy program and not the name of a haunted mansion or a ride at a theme park.

So, next time a dweeby guy breaks into your car and asks you to take him on as a client? Better to go with your first instinct—call the police! He’s not worth the trouble!

For more information on the NSA and spying on Americans: