How the NSA Halted My Rise as a Vermont Drug Lord

The NSA ruins everything.

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

I smelled pot. Walking along a stream that outlined our newly purchased property in Vermont, I came toward a field that abutted the water. It was there I noticed I was standing in the middle of 12 marijuana plants, each nearly 6 feet tall.

Quickly I realized that 1) I had many pounds of marijuana on my property, which put me in a legal predicament; and 2) that they possibly belonged to an elderly neighbor, who may have needed them for medicinal purposes. Removing an adjoining property owner’s crop of medicinal pot plants wouldn’t start off neighborly relations on the right foot.

That same day, I showed the new documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply to students in my online behavior and media course. The documentary is about how we as a society have signed over nearly all of our privacy associated with our online identity, seamlessly integrating accounts on multiple devices coupled with exact GPS coordinates. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, sums up the new data-collection mentality like so: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” But that statement couldn’t apply to my predicament. I wanted to know the legal ramifications of letting the plants stay on my property or for cutting them down.

If we were still living in, say, 2005, when digital culture existed to unite people and not to feed corporate dominance, big-data algorithms, and a fire hose to the NSA, I wouldn’t have felt much concern about searching any and all questions associated with my pot possession. But the Internet has become a corporate and government commodity. As long as I had a large crop of marijuana on my property, I was playing for keeps. I would be damned if I would implicate myself with searches on marijuana ownership and corresponding laws.

My tentativeness isn’t isolated. We are beginning to see just how subversive data monitoring has become in our digital lives. Lev Grossman, writing about Mark Zuckerberg in Time in 2010, tells how FBI director Robert Mueller went out of his way at Facebook headquarters to shake Zuckerberg’s hand for “ironclad bragging rights forever.” The subtext of the encounter—revolving around what, precisely, Mueller was doing at Facebook headquarters—wasn’t questioned. We do know Mueller and his crew have invested significant time and resources in better integrating FBI protocol with Facebook searches. We also know that Verizon and AT&T provide a constant flow of intelligence to governments around the world. As of yesterday, we know that the NSA has intercepted Google and Yahoo’s internal data through its MUSCULAR program. Edward Snowden’s leaks show that the U.S. will spend more than $52 billion on the nation’s 16 spy agencies for the 2013 fiscal year. Who needs squad cars on the street when you have such a pervasive barometer of societal right and wrong?

Verizon’s Enterprise Solutions president and former COO John Stratton addressed what he called the “question of civil liberty and the rights of the individual citizen” in a national-security context in a speech last month in Tokyo. “This is not a question that will be answered by a telecom executive; this is not a question that will be answered by an IT executive,” Stratton said. “This is a question that must be answered by societies themselves.” If it’s a question for society, presumably, then it’s not a question for Verizon, and it would seem his company has no plans on changing the status quo.

“In a sense, Snowden’s revelations haven’t been that surprising for the experts,” says Vikram Kumar, CEO of MEGA, the successor to file-sharing site MEGA UPLOADS, founded by the notorious Kim Dotcom (whom the U.S. is trying to extradite from New Zealand to face secondary copyright infringement charges). “What has changed is that the topic is a concern for mainstream and everyday people. We are at a tipping point from looking at the Internet as a broadly trusted mechanism for commerce and information to now people default think of it as an untrusted mechanism.”

MEGA has leveraged the newly untrusted nature of the Internet to build the MEGA cloud storage site, which encrypts both sides of the file transfer process and vouches not to release information on its users unless directly served with a court-ordered injunction. MEGA had 1 million users sign up for its service in the first three days; they currently have over five million active customers who utilize their privacy driven storage system. 

On a public computer in my college library, not signed into my Google account, I was able to research the stakes of my marijuana ownership. Vermont, while decriminalizing marijuana ownership up to an ounce, has strict penalties going beyond that. Under the Vermont Statute Title 18, the implications of possessing 10 plants and one pound of marijuana came with felony charges, up to five years in prison, and up to $100,000 in fines. There were severe violations occurring on my land.   

We live in a culture that harnesses connected life as one of our core virtues. But when I needed Internet functionality to understand the most severe legal implications of my life, the digital connection turned its head. I am all for making drug dealers keep an eye over their digital shoulder, but there are significant implications for the rest of us. We don’t know the cost until we need it most. 

My marijuana-growing predicament came to an end two weeks ago. My elderly neighbor, who has Alzheimer’s disease, walked away from his house and didn’t return.  My town clerk told me that the state police would arrive with search dogs to scour the woods and locate him. The dogs found the man, but my marijuana plants became the most expensive bonfire I ever lit. It may have been wasteful in a certain context, but the threat of a five-year prison sentence was impetus to strike the match.  

Now that my illegal crop is gone, I have digital functionality back. I can do whatever I like with my online presence, as long as my social media provider, Internet service provider, local government, state government, and national government approve.  It’s a free world.