"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare" - Mark Twain
For those tired of being dismissed as 'conspiracy theorists' for the crime of paying attention and digging deeper than a Yahoo.com news headline, this has been a week of vindication. An unidentified whistleblower trusted the journalist Glenn Greenwald enough to send him documents concerning PRISM, a top-secret US government surveillance program that directly taps into the servers of nine tech giants (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple and PalTalk). Potentially all forms of media can be and have been monitored, with anyone in the world a viable target. General information can be found here, while Darker Net provides a typically excellent and detailed rundown here of what we know so far.
While, officials assure us, the actual content of phone calls cannot be tapped without special legal permission, the PRISM program allows the NSA to access so-called phone 'metadata', which is basically who called whom when and from where, along with any other available data about the call. Government officials have assured Americans that they have nothing to worry about because only this metadata is accessed, but as this informative article by Jane Mayer at The New Yorker explains, Metadata can in fact allow extremely private information to be inferred, rendering actual call content unnecessary.
From the article:
So how bad could it be?
The answer, according to the mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau, whom I interviewed while reporting on the plight of the former N.S.A. whistleblower Thomas Drake and who is also the author of “Surveillance or Security?,” is that it's worse than many might think.
"The public doesn't understand,” she told me, speaking about so-called metadata. “It's much more intrusive than content.” She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening - you don't need the content.”
For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it's unclear if any such brakes are applied.
Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night.
The reaction to this leak from the intelligence community, administration officials and associated lackeys has been predictable. Quote sources here and here.
Karl Rove on Fox:“I'm not going to defend the Obama administration. I will defend the intelligence community. To identify patterns of phone calls between individuals here and individuals abroad, and then you identify the patterns of phone calls inside this country...that allows the intelligence agencies to identify connections between people abroad and people at home.”
Democratic Senator for California and Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein: "It's called protecting America."
Republican Senator for South Carolina Lindsey Graham: "I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States."
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the program as "important and entirely legal" and said the leak of a document describing it was "reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
Regarding the phone-tracking program, Mr. Clapper said the unauthorized disclosure "threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation."
Senator Ron Wyden asked Mr. Clapper about NSA data collection at a Senate hearing back in March:
Wyden: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
Clapper: "No, sir."
Wyden: "It does not?"
Clapper: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect -- but not wittingly."
Mr. Clapper expanded on these remarks this week in light of the revelations:
"What I said was, 'the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails.' I stand by that."
[Aside: lying to Congress is a crime punishable by up to five years imprisonment.]
Are Americans targeted?
A White House official has an answer:
"The program is subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch and Congress." It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons."
In its latest article on this topic, The Guardian today revealed the existence of the NSA's secret tool for tracking global surveillance data, known as 'Boundless Informant'.
[Aside: what is it with the US and its creepy names for tools, operations and missions???]
From the article:
The disclosure of the internal Boundless Informant system comes amid a struggle between the NSA and its overseers in the Senate over whether it can track the intelligence it collects on American communications. The NSA's position is that it is not technologically feasible to do so.
Judith Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman, told the Guardian in a response to the latest disclosures: "NSA has consistently reported – including to Congress – that we do not have the ability to determine with certainty the identity or location of all communicants within a given communication. That remains the case."
Other documents seen by the Guardian further demonstrate that the NSA does in fact break down its surveillance intercepts[,] which could allow the agency to determine how many of them are from the US. The level of detail includes individual IP addresses.
IP address is not a perfect proxy for someone's physical location but it is rather close, said Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist with the Speech Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If you don't take steps to hide it, the IP address provided by your internet provider will certainly tell you what country, state and, typically, city you are in," Soghoian said.
That approximation has implications for the ongoing oversight battle between the intelligence agencies and Congress.
Glenn Greenwald himself put his finger on the exact problem exposed by this leak in a recent article:
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.
This dynamic - the hallmark of a healthy and free society - has been radically reversed. Now, they know everything about what we do, and are constantly building systems to know more. Meanwhile, we know less and less about what they do, as they build walls of secrecy behind which they function. That's the imbalance that needs to come to an end. No democracy can be healthy and functional if the most consequential acts of those who wield political power are completely unknown to those to whom they are supposed to be accountable.
That's it in a nutshell. We have officials elected via fake elections in fake democracies building walls of secrecy to protect and consolidate their own power (and wealth), all the while working to ensure that the status quo is maintained for the entities which support their political careers (and revolving-door retirements) financially - the banks, corporations, various big-money lobby groups and rich donors.
The pretext for mass NSA surveillance is, of course, the 'War on Terror'. Putting aside the fact that the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in the US are around one in twenty million, there are other ways to ensure the legal requirements of probable cause or reasonable suspicion are satisfied. Given the enormous financial resources set aside for the war on terror, it would be a simple matter to have, for instance, a cadre of specialist judges on call twenty-four hours a day to instantly review official requests from law enforcement officials (who may be working on time-sensitive cases) who suspect (using whatever powers legally permitted - for example, keyword detection software that does not show ALL content of a communication but merely flags it as suspicious) a particular individual of plotting a terrorist attack and require legal permission to probe their private communications. This would negate the need for blanket surveillance at a stroke.
[Note: I do not believe the answer to terrorism is surveillance - for example, the keyword detection software cited above. It is suggested here merely as a possible legal alternative to blanket surveillance in the context of this specific issue. One potent answer to terrorism is to stop invading, bombing and generally interfering in foreign sovereign nations...but that's an assertion for another article.]
Instead of expanding this power (that it already possessed) in such a legal manner, the US government has given the NSA free rein to violate the privacy of anyone it sees fit to. That it has chosen such a path is clear proof that the purpose of such a program is not surveillance to prevent terrorism, but instead surveillance of the world population in general; surveillance which will allow the targeting of any potential threat to its dominance in any arena, along with valuable data on human behavior patterns, including in the commercial field, which can be traded. Further, with a targeted person's private data in its possession, the NSA may then enable that particular threat (a meddling journalist, for example) to be dealt with in various ways where necessary: blackmail, bribery, smear campaigns and so on.
What to do. The first step is to move all your communications away from the companies named in the leak. This very useful article details how you can use the Internet without using PRISM companies. It is also vital to spread awareness on this issue, and in particular to vigorously challenge any fool raising the 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' defense.
However, these are only short-term measures. While extremely important, this leak highlights just another in a very long line of abuses of power by an out-of-control elite who believe they can do anything they wish, and who see you, a citizen, merely as a commodity. In order to end this orgy of abuse, incompetence, greed and corruption, which could literally kill us all when one considers the inaction on catastrophic climate change, it is necessary for you and anyone you can convince to become active in support of progressive movements that seek to bring about truly democratic systems which prioritize human rights and social justice over capital and power.
This leak highlights the extent of the ambitions of the elites; they seek nothing less than total control, making themselves unassailable to any conceivable challenge to their dominance. Government officials will play down this leak, assuring 'us' that it is legal and that 'we' really have nothing to worry about, but there will be no contrition or backing down: they are in for a penny, in for a pound.
One thing we can be certain of is this: Glenn Greenwald will face serious flak - possibly more than that - and the leaker will be extremely fortunate to escape the inevitable witch hunt. As the mafia are wont to say, a message must be sent, and that - as we have seen from the barbaric persecution of whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou etc. - is the true face of those who claim power over us.
Simon Wood (Twitter: @simonwood11) is the author of 'The 99.99998271%: Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' and the founder of The Movement, a non-profit organization dedicated to peace, justice and democracy. Please follow and support The Movement on Twitter: @1themovement as it strongly urges all progressive movements to unite and pool their resources in the common goal of removing the cancer of corruption that threatens us all. You can also follow Simon Wood on Facebook and at his blog.
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