Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Big Brother Is Here... Officially! NSA Spying on Everyone

Last October I briefly discussed an ABC interview with two National Security Agency whistleblowers, Adrienne Kinne and David Murfee Faulk. ABC's Brian Ross reported that the NSA eavesdropped on "hundreds of Americans simply calling their families."

Tonight, former National Security Agency analyst, Russell Tice, was interviewed on the Keith Olbermann show. Tice revealed that the NSA spying has been far greater than revealed before. Essentially, NSA has been spying on everyone's computer traffic, phone calls, faxes, emails, etc. Furthermore, this spying was also targeted at specific domestic groups, including reporters.

This outrageous all-out assault on the Fourth Amendment and our civil liberties is a tremendous threat to all of us. We must demand an immediate end to this program, and investigation and prosecution of those who initiated and ran this illegal program. The ability to use this information to persecute political opponents is a dire threat to our country, and a knife in the heart of any pretense to democracy.

RiderOnTheStorm has a good, understandable technical breakdown of the details at a diary at Daily Kos:
Mr. Tice talked at some length about the difference between large-scale technical surveillance and more focused directed surveillance. If I've understood him correctly, then I think I can explain what he was talking about by using email as an example.

If you were interested in screening huge amounts of email, but didn't have the capacity to capture or store it all, you might decide to just content yourself with the metadata. Metadata is just "data about data". For instance, in the case of email, some interesting metadata might be: (a) what language it's in (b) the sender's address (c) the recipient's address (d) the length in bytes (e) the length in lines (f) what kinds of attachments, if any (g) what mail program was used to compose it (h) what the Subject line was, and so on.

This sort of metadata is relatively easy to extract and takes up a lot less room than the actual data: the metadata for an email message with 2M of photos attached might fit in 1K. (And this is the point where it should dawn on you that similar metadata exists for faxes, phone calls, and every other electronic form of communication.)

Metadata can be useful. Suppose you know that The Bad Guy always uses Eudora 1.1 to compose mail messages and always attaches photos that are 772x448 pixels in JPG format. If you've extracted the right metadata from billions of messages, you might be able to figure out that the 99.999% of them aren't what you're looking for by using that as a filter. If you're lucky, the only messages left will be the ones you want -- or the number will be small enough that brute force or maybe a simple search will get you what you want.

But metadata can be abused. It's possible to use the same collection to reconstruct
the salient details of every message sent by A. Or from A to B. Or which has a "Subject:" line containing the string "protest". And so on. It enables ad hoc fishing expeditions that are limited only by the scope of the collection, the kind of metadata extracted -- and the restraint of those conducting them, which I think we can safely characterize as "nonexistent".

If I understood Mr. Tice correctly, metadata collection was untargeted and pervasive.
They went for everything they could get. Which means if you sent a message to Aunt Mary with a photo of the dog on July 17, 2004, they acquired -- or at least tried to acquire -- the metadata for it.

Mr. Tice's further point was that high-level technical analysis like this was used to select specific targets for detailed analysis -- and in that detailed analysis, EVERYTHING was collected. Not just metadata: everything. Every phone call, every fax, every email, every instant message, everything. All captured and stored in a database...somewhere.


This so much worse than what we knew at this time last year that I hardly know where to begin. Let me just recapitulate part of what Mr. Tice said: he stated that he'd been asked to identify particular groups so that they could be excluded from surveillance...but eventually he realized that this was an internal NSA cover story, and that those were precisely the groups being targeted. It took him a while to get around to naming one of those groups, but when he did...journalists. Reporters. The news media.
Here's a link to the MSNBC site that has the interview for online viewing.

Update (from the interview):
OLBERMANN: Let's start with the review. We heard the remarks from Mr. Bush in 2005, that only Americans who would have been eavesdropped on without a warrant were those who were talking to terrorists overseas. Based on what you know, what you have seen firsthand and what you have encountered in your experience, how much of that statement was true?

TICE: Well, I don't know what our former president knew or didn't know. I'm sort of down in the weeds. But the National Security Agency had access to all Americans' communications, faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. And that doesn't -- it didn't matter whether you were in Kansas, you know, in the middle of the country, and you never made a communication -- foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.
I'll end with this from mcjoan, also at Daily Kos:
The questions we had then are now tripled: Who was targeted and why? When did this program begin? What exactly was behind the NSA's efforts to enlist Qwest in warrantless wiretaps in February, 2001--months before 9/11, and what other telcos did they approach at that time, and to what purpose? That's just scratching the surface of questions that need to be asked, and it's about fucking time we get some answers. And that the FISA Amendment Act that legalized so many of these abuses, including bulk collection of data, be repealed.

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