Several weeks ago, after the US intelligence agencies found the Boston Marathon bombers in a matter of days, I posted this story: Who Is Homeland Security Watching? Off-the-grid Fertilizer Plant vs On-the-Grid Citizenry.
When I said that the federal government was watching “real people, not corporate people,” I had no idea how prophetic that statement was. In the few short weeks since that story, there has been one revelation about government spying on American citizens and news organizations after another.
Gov’t Obtains Wide AP Phone Records in Probe
First we learned that the feds obtained months worth of telephone records from Associated Press (AP) reporters. AP called this “a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into how news organizations gather the news.”
US gov’t collecting huge number of phone records
Although there was a huge media uproar over the AP story when it broke, it pales in comparison to what we learned this week. Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, confirmed that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting cell phone records for millions of Americans on a regular basis for years. This ongoing surveillance of American citizens began during the warrantless wiretapping program initiated under President George Bush’s reign. Verizon, Sprint, and At&T have complied with court orders to provide customer data. Verizon alone has 121 million customers. More details and links after the jump.
From the Arizona Daily Star...
Under the terms of the [court] order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said…
The FISA court order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compelled Verizon to provide the NSA with electronic copies of “all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls,” The Guardian said.
U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program
Close on the heels of the telephone data revelation came the story that the federal government is snooping in the big data records of nine major players in the digital world. The Washington Post and The Guardian simultaneously broke this story based upon a leaked NSA slide show. From the Washington Post…
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. [June 6, 2013] It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
To say that this is a chilling invasion of privacy is the understatement of the year. Many people on Facebook lock down their personal pages so their activities and photos can be seen by friends only. Obviously, the “privacy” settings on Facebook are a meaningless sham when the government can “extract what it wants”. Personal photos, videos, chats, emails, phone records– our lives are open books for the US government, thanks to the broad interpretation of the Patriot Act and complicit behavior of Congress, governmental agencies, and two presidents– Bush and now President Barack Obama. (How disappointing.) From a Democracy Now interview with attorney and The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald…
GLENN GREENWALD: There are top-secret NSA documents that very excitingly describe—excitedly describe, boast about even, how they have created this new program called the PRISM program that actually has been in existence since 2007, that enables them direct access into the servers of all of the major Internet companies which people around the world, hundreds of millions, use to communicate with one another. You mentioned all of those—all those names. And 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…
…the objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy. They want to make sure that every single time human beings interact with one another, things that we say to one another, things we do with one another, places we go, the behavior in which we engage, that they know about it, that they can watch it, and they can store it, and they can access it at any time. And that’s what this program is about. And they’re very explicit about the fact that since most communications are now coming through these Internet companies, it is vital, in their eyes, for them to have full and unfettered access to it. And they do. [Emphasis added.]
For a detailed comparison of the parallel NSA spying operations (phone data mining vs social media data mining), check out this story in the New York Times: Comparing Two Secret Surveillance Programs.
Now that we know Big Brother really is watching us– despite our Facebook privacy settings– what do we do about it? To get away from the surveillance, you’d have to shut down all of your social media accounts, your email account, and your cell phone– pretty dramatic steps for the digital era. The problem is: Even if you locked down your activities out of paranoia, you can’t control your friends’ activities.
Personally, I think we must be smarter about our usage of the Internet. Years ago when Google Docs first promoted their online word processing as a way to conveniently store documents online– thus saving hard drive space and saving money by not buying Microsoft Office– I was suspicious about who had access to these personal documents. Now the rage is cloud storage of personal information, documents, data, and images– Google Docs on steroids.
If you use multiple computers and mobile devices, cloud storage is very convenient. Problem is: Cloud storage not only makes access to personal documents convenient for users; it makes access convenient for the government also. Back in the olden days, law enforcement had to show “probable cause” that a person has committed a crime in order to obtain a search warrant. They actually had to build a legal case to come to your house and take your computer(s), hard drives(s), and personal records. Those days are gone.