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Data Points on U.S. NSA Large-scale Wiretapping

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

A couple of days ago, Gleen Greenwald, constitutional and civil-rights lawyer, former Salon blogger and current Guardian blogger and columnist, revealed some top-secret U.S. documents that lay out in quite clear terms the degree to which U.S. government agencies are proud to be intercepting data from myriad sources.

Phone records, social-networking sites, large cloud-data providers, chat tools, video-calling software—almost anything you can think of—were mentioned as current and past sources. The agencies claim that they have access to our data, but that they are careful to make use of only that which corresponds to foreigners and suspected terrorists.

 American-made: Mr. FishWhile the companies involved have denied their involvement, the formulation of the law also dictates that they do so. Leaders of relevant committees have not denied the breadth of the programs but have instead defended its legality. They claim that these forms of data-collection are necessary tools in the war on terror and accuse us of naiveté for our shock. It’s been going on for years, so why care now?

 Jeff Danziger: June 07, 2013We have, for years, if not decades, made it exceedingly easy for any organization with enough time, power and money to trace us in this way. Our phone calls, our emails, our chat sessions, our tweets, our status updates, our text messages, our pictures—they all fly through the æther unencrypted, unsigned and open to any intercepting party. Such information is (almost) never transmitted directly from sender to receiver; instead, it makes many hops from intermediate router to backbone to router to switch until it reaches its final destination.

Everything can be intercepted, everything can be read, because we make no effort to prevent it. For anything that could not be intercepted—SSL-encrypted communications, such as you can use for Facebook or Google if you’ve enabled it—or for post-hoc investigation, the U.S. government retrieves extremely richly detailed information from the big data giants directly.

While this is acknowledged, the claim is that nothing bad will happen to anyone who doesn’t deserve it. All of the people involved in these vast projects are upstanding and will only investigate as far as necessary—and no farther.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.[1]

Trust us.

Mass Media Turnaround

 Gary Varvel: June 07, 2013Just last week, much of the media reaction to Obama’s supposedly scintillating and ground-breaking speech about his desire to stop breaking the law with drone attacks was overwhelmingly positive and positively naïve. Just one short week later, the media is now up in arms to learn that the administration is pumping cell-phone providers via the NSA for huge amounts of information.

Even the Grey Lady has finally lost faith, according to the article Obama Administration Has ‘Lost All Credibility,’ New York Times Admonishes by Peter Scheer (TruthDig).

“Within hours of the disclosure that the federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.”

As we’ll see below, the mainstream media is quite late to the party, as usual. This is not really news, per se. The U.S. government has been doing this for years—very officially since the early years of the first Bush administration under the auspices of the PATRIOT Act.

The only difference is that there is now more evidence as to the breadth and brazenness of the programs that have flourished under that act’s auspices.

Greenwald’s Leak

One of the original articles detailing the leak was NSA taps in to internet giants’ systems to mine user data, secret files reveal by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (The Guardian)

 PRISM program growth

“The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.”

 PRISM collection details

“It boasts of what it calls “strong growth” in its use of the PRISM program to obtain communications. The document highlights the number of obtained communications increased in 2012 by 248% for Skype – leading the notes to remark there was “exponential growth in Skype reporting; looks like the word is getting out about our capability against Skype”. There was also a 131% increase in requests for Facebook data, and 63% for Google.”

They quickly followed up with another article, Boundless Informant: the NSA’s secret tool to track global surveillance data by Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill (The Guardian), which stated that,

“[t]he National Security Agency has developed a powerful tool for recording and analysing where its intelligence comes from, raising questions about its repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications.

“[…] The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013. ”

The following link is to a video interview, ”A Massive Surveillance State”: Glenn Greenwald Exposes Covert NSA Program Collecting Calls, Emails by Amy Goodman/Glenn Greenwald (Democracy Now!) which includes the following long statement from Greenwald,

“[…] what makes it so extraordinary is that in 2008 the Congress enacted a new law that essentially said that except for conversations involving American citizens talking to one another on U.S. soil, the NSA no longer needs a warrant to grab, eavesdrop on, intercept whatever communications they want. And at the time, when those of us who said that the NSA would be able to obtain whatever they want and abuse that power, the argument was made, “Oh, no, don’t worry. There’s a great check on this. They have to go to the phone companies and go to the Internet companies and ask for whatever it is they want. And that will be a check.” And what this program allows is for them, either because the companies have given over access to their servers, as the NSA claims, or apparently the NSA has simply seized it, as the companies now claim—the NSA is able to go in—anyone at a monitor in an NSA facility can go in at any time and either read messages that are stored in Facebook or in real time surveil conversations and chats that take place on Skype and Gmail and all other forms of communication. It’s an incredibly invasive system of surveillance worldwide that has zero checks of any kind.”

This is not exactly new news

Some members of U.S. intelligence committees have alluded to this, but also been handcuffed by secrecy from being specific. The brief post Sen. Wyden Warned us in 2011 that the Government was Running wild on Surveillance by Juan Cole (Informed Comment) includes the following video:

Ron Wyden (YouTube)

He starts his presentation from 2011 with:

“I want to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the PATRIOT Act, they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.”

While Wyden has prevented from going into detail, Julian Assange was not, in the following interview from 2011:

Julian Assange (YouTube/RussiaTV)

Jump to 1:50 in the video if it doesn’t already go there.

Assange says,

“Facebook, in particular, is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other and their relatives. All sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S. intelligence. Facebook, Google, Yahoo—all these major U.S. organizations have built in interfaces for U.S. intelligence.

“It’s not a matter of serving a subpoena; they have an interface that they have developed for U.S. intelligence to use.”

Everyone’s Guilty of Something

 Ted Rall: June 7th, 2013The articles A Bad Month for Privacy Rights by Laura Finley (CounterPunch) and The Slippery Swab by Scott Greenfield (Simple Justice) both tied in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that it is legal for police to collect DNA from anyone arrested for anything, regardless of guilt, innocence or duration of arrest. Citing from Greenfield,

“As Scalia properly notes, DNA is collected from people convicted of crimes regardless of this decision, so they are by definition removed from the people affected by it. That leaves only the people who are arrested but not ultimately convicted as the people in play. The decision is otherwise meaningless.

“Given this universe, and the fact that defendants are presumed innocent until convicted, there can be no question as a matter of law that buccal swabs of DNA are being seized from innocent people.

“[…]

“But if it’s constitutional to collect DNA from innocent people based on mere accusation, and the only impediment is the required opening of the mouth (whether or not our proud founders would have enjoyed a royal swab in there) to take a swab, then the only remaining question is how long before the government can rent-a-scientist to find the part of our DNA that reveals our propensity to behave in a way that displeases it.”

The interesting tie-in with the massive NSA eavesdropping program is that proponents like Feinstein and Clapper claim that it’s legal and vetted to apply only to the guilty or the properly suspected. The extra-judicial and extra-constitutional techniques are only used against the suspected and the guilty. But the U.S. is increasingly a place where everyone is suspected of something, where everyone is guilty.

Fingers in Every Imaginable Pie

The eavesdropping is quite extensive. Essentially, if you’re online in the western world, then at least some of your information, your conversations and your shopping and browsing habits have not only been cataloged by the company with which you entrusted the data, but also the NSA. The article Leak: NSA Has Backdoor Access to Google, Apple, Microsoft and More by Peter Scheer (TruthDig) put it well:

“In the last few years, all of the major technology companies have been pushing users to move their data to “the cloud.” Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple have all argued that they can do a better job protecting your photos, documents and communications than you can. Now it seems users have voluntarily transferred their private information into the hands of not just corporations, but the government as well.”

The article U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove by Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez and Janet Hook (Wall Street Journal) added that your financial data is also included,

“The National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency’s activities.”

The article NSA sucks in data from 50 companies by Marc Ambinder (The Week) make a somewhat hyperbolic claim, but clarifies that when the NSA says that it doesn’t spy on Americans, what it means is that while it collects data from Americans, it pinkie-swears that it doesn’t use that data.

“From the different types of data, including their credit card purchases, the locations they sign in to the internet from, and even local police arrest logs, the NSA can track people it considers terrorism or espionage suspects in near-real time. An internet geo-location cell is on constant standby to help analysts determine where a subject logs in from. Most of the collection takes place on subjects outside the U.S, but a large chunk of the world’s relevant communication passes through American companies with servers on American soil. So the NSA taps in locally to get at targets globally.”

That all seems quite above board; what could possibly go wrong? I think that suggestions of potential for abuse are totally blown out of proportion. Totally.

The article Don’t Worry About Obama Spying On You—Just Kidding, You Should Worry by David Seaman (DisInfo) draws the extremely appropriate parallel to East Germany:

“The information collected includes call recipients and all location data, meaning where you are physically located whenever you make a call and every single social association you have (the people you call, the people who call you). This is the kind of rich domestic surveillance data the Nazi Gestapo and East German Stasi would have given their right legs to obtain. If this ‘metadata’ is not a violation of our privacy, Obama should release his own ‘metadata’ to the public, and his staff’s – it’d be fascinating to see every phone call they have ever placed, in addition to their locations at all times.”

And it’s not just phone records: it’s everything you do online. According to New leak shows feds can access user accounts for Google, Facebook and more by Cyrus Farivar (Ars Technica) all of them are denying it, but it’s also very likely that they are legally required to do so. The program exists; the documents are real; Glenn Greenwald is a very reliable source.

“Still, Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that these denials may not be very significant.

““Whether they know the code name PRISM, they probably don’t,” he told Ars. “[Code names are] not routinely shared outside the agency. Saying they’ve never heard of PRISM doesn’t mean much. Generally what we’ve seen when there have been revelations is something like: ‘we can’t comment on matters of national security.‘ The tech companies responses are unusual in that they’re not saying ‘we can’t comment.‘ They’re designed to give the impression that they’re not participating in this.””

The article Google, Take a Real Stand by Ted Dziuba points out that FISA eavesdropping requests contain a self-hiding legal mechanism,

“The trouble with FISA orders is that the companies who are served with them are prohibited by law from disclosing their very existence, let alone content.”

What’s the Problem? It’s Legal.

The article We Misunderstood Barack: He only wanted the Domestic Surveillance to be Made Legal, not to End It by Juan Cole (Informed Comment) includes the following video clip,

10 Questions: Warrantless Wiretaps (YouTube)

and concludes the following:

“We misunderstood Barack Obama years ago when he slammed the Bush administration for arbitrary intrusion in the privacy of citizens, in the name of the war on terrorism. No more illegal wiretapping of American citizens, he promised. But note that he didn’t say ‘no more wiretapping.’

 Tom Sheneman: June 7th, 2013Apparently Obama only meant that he would pass laws and issue presidential decrees that allowed the government to violate civil liberties, so that the vast domestic surveillance was legal, in contrast to its illicit character under Bush. It isn’t the surveillance that he was promising to curtail.”

The article Obama defends digital spying: “I think we’ve struck the right balance” by Cyrus Farivar (Ars Technica) cites Obama as saying that,

““I think it’s important to recognize you can’t have 100 percent security and also 100 percent privacy, and also zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

“Inconvenience”? That’s what you call Stasi-level spying on eveyone in the world? “The program does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls” … no, the program just lets them know who’s calling who and for how long. Nothing to see here, please move along.

Screw you, dude. We did make choices. They’re in the Constitution. You’re making other choices without consulting us. You are, in fact, making the exact same choices that all of your equally crooked predecessors have made and you’re no different in trying to make it seem like we’re the ones who don’t understand how the world works.

What Obama don’t seem to understand is that we know how the world works; we would like it to work differently. His lying ass is only getting in the way.

It’s not just Obama

Obama is far from alone in this; the article White House: Spying on US citizens “critical” tool for fighting terror by Jon Brodkin (Ars Technica) notes that the

“Senate Intelligence Committee leadership said the phone records collection has been occurring since 2007. “Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) […]”

The Obama administration has been aided and abetted by a legislature that is equally anxious to get all the leverage it can over its subjects. The article An Open Letter to Dianne Feinstein, Head of the Senate Intelligence Committee by Norman Solomon (Antiwar.com) eloquently addresses the issue that this program should be considered highly unconstitutional, if that phrase had any real meaning anymore. This is, of course, quite a hyperbolic statement, but it’s really hard to think that anyone in the U.S. government cares anymore (with the usual exceptions of Bernie Sanders, etc.)

“On Thursday, when you responded to news about massive ongoing surveillance of phone records of people in the United States, you slipped past the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you seem to be in the habit of treating the Bill of Rights as merely advisory.

“The Constitution doesn’t get any better than this: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.””

While Dianne Feinstein has not responded to the open letter, she has provided an official statement, in which she seems to be not just baffled at the uproar, but offended by the implication that she would be involved in anything morally reprehensible. She said,

“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the FISA court under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act, therefore it is lawful.

“[…] There is nothing new in this program. The fact of the matter is that this was a routine three-month approval, under seal, that was leaked.”

The translation is: we passed a law to screw you all over years ago and you have the temerity to try to call us out on the carpet for it now? Instead of being humbled into trying to repeal repeal ludicrously invasive and unconstitutional laws like the PATRIOT Act, Feinstein wants to hang the source of the leaks / the whistleblowers out to dry because she “think[s] we have become a culture of leaks now.”

Madame Feinstein, your idol in both hairdo and policy is calling you. I strongly recommend you join Ms. Thatcher as soon as possible.

You’re only making it worse for yourselves

One article is titled Government likely to open criminal probe into NSA leaks by Mark Hosenball (Reuters).

Well, of course they are.

Unsurprisingly, the administration is going to go after the whistleblowers, admonishing any and all that distributed the information that they are helping the terrorists and making the world unsafe for democracy and other such utterly boring Orwellian pablum.

From the Greenwald article by Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill (The Guardian), we hear that

“[Judith] Emmel, the NSA spokeswoman [said] ‘The continued publication of these allegations about highly classified issues, and other information taken out of context, makes it impossible to conduct a reasonable discussion on the merits of these programs.’”

Boohoo. Really, I feel for you. It must be tragic, to not be able to do your secret job of secretly monitoring, well, whatever the hell you feel like monitoring, without any oversight. And all of these tedious bags of meat over which you have oversight, who should just be grateful that you’re “standing on that wall”[2] instead of whining about accountability, rule-of-law and due process.

The NSA = the right arm of the Obama administration = the supreme executive = shut the f&%k and sit down while the grown-ups are talking.

According to the article U.S. Government: Reports About PRISM Contain “Numerous Inaccuracies” by Frederic Lardinois (TechCrunch), the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is hopping mad.

“The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans. (Emphasis added.)”

It’s hardly surprising that it’s technically legal. Hell, you can make anything technically legal if you don’t give a shit about people’s rights. Everything that the East German police did was technically legal, too. Clapper’s panties seem to be in quite a bunch here…maybe he’s telling the truth. Nah. I trust Glenn Greenwald’s judgment much more.

As Greenwald said in the Democracy Now! interview from above,

“Well, first of all, the fact that something is lawful doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous or tyrannical or wrong. You can enact laws that endorse tyrannical behavior. And there’s no question, if you look at what the government has done, from the PATRIOT Act, the Protect America Act, the Military Commissions Act and the FISA Amendments Act, that’s exactly what the war on terror has been about.”

The FISA courts to which Clapper refers are notoriously lenient—they are the very definition of a rubber-stamp process, in fact. Back in the Bush days, when the current spate of illegal wire-tapping first reared its ugly head, the issue was that, despite almost no refusals for dozens of thousands of wire-tapping warrant requests, the Bush administration—and its justice department—still found the process too tedious. They didn’t comply and thus were illegally wire-tapping Americans, when it would have been very easy to legally do so.[3]

So, while Clapper claims that Obama’s wire-tapping is all above-board (i.e. that warrants have been obtained from the FISA courts for all instance), it’s not a very strong assurance. And he’s probably lying anyway, because the last five years have shown that the Obama administration—including such sterling chaps as Eric Holder—has hardly cared about the rule of law any more than the Bush administration did.

So, to recap: even if what they’re doing is technically legal, there is no way we should let them do it. But they’re probably not even doing it legally. So to hell with them.

Clapper went on in another missive:

“The highest priority of the Intelligence Community is to work within the constraints of law to collect, analyze and understand information related to potential threats to our national security.”

“Within the constraints of the law” indeed. There’s the appeal to reason again, the appeal to our fear for our own safety. It’s worked so well in the past, so many times before. The argument that, as long as something is legal, as long as it’s been declared legal by the same branch of government that needs it to be legal, the American people should stop being so f&$king nosy and just be happy that good ‘ol Colonel Jessup is on that there wall.

Cue citations of Ambrose Bierce, George Santayana, et al. It’s would be boring if it weren’t such a time-bomb waiting to strike so many innocent people. A dragnet of this size cannot help but catch a lot of innocent fish.

Clapper again:

“Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions. Surveillance programs like this one are consistently subject to safeguards that are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns.”

The U.S. government is doing all of this for your benefit and your nosiness is putting you—and your children!—in danger. Let the grownups handle this, wee ones.

Christ, Clapper, sack up. Or should we call you a wääääähmbulance?

In response to Clapper’s hysterical threats, the article On whistleblowers and government threats of investigation by Glenn Greenwald (The Guardian) has this to say,

“The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals. (Emphasis in original.)”

That is exactly what all of these government officials seem to have forgotten—or never known—as they chastise us for trying to get them to do their jobs without making us their subjects.

Greenwald continues,

“There seems to be this mentality in Washington that as soon as they stamp TOP SECRET on something they’ve done we’re all supposed to quiver and allow them to do whatever they want without transparency or accountability under its banner.”

Even worse, people like Clapper and all employees of the NSA are entirely unaccountable to us—they’re not even elected. It’s bad enough that Obama and Feinstein think that they can justify any behavior as long as they tell us it’s for our own good. It’s the unelected who cannot be ferreted out by any democratic process who hold such tremendous power over us.

Can I get a revolution up in here?

Confirmed: The NSA is Spying on Millions of Americans by Cindy Cohn (EFF)

“Today, the Guardian newspaper confirmed what EFF (and many others) have long claimed: the NSA is conducting widespread, untargeted, domestic surveillance on millions of Americans. This revelation should end, once and for all, the government’s long-discredited secrecy claims about its dragnet domestic surveillance programs. It should spur Congress and the American people to make the President finally tell the truth about the government’s spying on innocent Americans.”

This is highly doubtful. In all likelihood, this revelation will blow over, just as everything else has. The services are too convenient: GMail, Skype, Facebook, phone calls and text messages … it would take a mass revolution, a mass boycott to force the companies to force the government to GTFO.

This is not at all likely to happen.

As the article Seize it all and trust the government to sort it out by Scott Greenfield (Simple Justice) points out

“This is despicable conduct by our government, and tomorrow the uproar will turn to something else and it will all be forgotten. Except by those whose days are spent trying to deal with the detritus of your neglect and transitory interest in liberty. To us, it was always despicable, but nobody else gave a damn. It’s unlikely to change this time around, or the next re-enactment and expansion. Or the one after that.

“You really do trust the government. You just can’t bring yourselves to admit it.”

So, those of us have always cared will continue to care. Everyone else will put their heads back down and continue their slow plod toward enslavement.


[1]

This “If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide” line of reasoning has long since been debunked in ever-so-slightly more intellectual and informed discussions. It is not really necessary to debunk it again. If you feel you need to learn more, see Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’ by Daniel J. Solove (Chronicle) which includes several very salient arguments like those about “aggregation”, “exclusion”, “distortion” and “secondary use” all of which can be combined to create utterly Kafkaesque situations in which people in a society without privacy become disadvantaged without even knowing why—or perhaps even being aware that they are even missing something.

Or see Nothing To Hide by Daniel Sieradski, who made a Twitter feed that highlights all of the foolish comments people make in support of a surveillance state (most equating it with increased security).

[2] Remember the final scene in A Few Good Men? Where Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup screams that “you can’t handle the truth”? That’s what this all sounds like to me.
[3] I’ve even written about the FISA courts before a few times: FISA – the Secret U.S. Court in August 2002 and Speak Up … We Can’t Hear You in February 2006.