Happy Thanksgiving from the NSA

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Here’s this week’s news from the NSA. Yes, when it comes to international espionage and snooping, in less than a century we’ve gone from a US Secretary of State declaring, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail” to a former French foreign minister recently telling a radio interviewer, “Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

In other words, we have so much to be thankful for. Weekly, even daily, revelations of National Security Agency prying have become the norm and whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden has become so well-known he recently was leading TIME Magazine’s readers’ poll for Person of the Year by some 65 points, running far ahead of President Obama, Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Miley Cyrus. (Although as of this writing, Miley suddenly has pulled into the lead. God bless America.)

In a story straight out of James Bond – or Austin Powers – Reuters reports that “British and US intelligence officials say they are worried about a ‘doomsday’ cache of highly classified, heavily encrypted material they believe former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has stored on a data cloud…

The cache contains documents generated by the NSA and other agencies and includes names of U.S. and allied intelligence personnel, seven current and former U.S. officials and other sources briefed on the matter said…

US officials and other sources said only a small proportion of the classified material Snowden downloaded during stints as a contract systems administrator for NSA has been made public. Some Obama administration officials have said privately that Snowden downloaded enough material to fuel two more years of news stories.

“The worst is yet to come,” said one former US official who follows the investigation closely.

Meanwhile, Eric Schmidt, the chairman and former CEO of Google, told CNN earlier this month that he and his fellow executives there were shocked and outraged by news that the NSA had tapped into Google’s fiber optic cables, along with those of several other tech companies and siphoned off huge amounts of data.

This week, Nicole Perlroth and John Markoff of The New York Times confirmed the tapping – the fiber optic cables are the weak link in the Internet privacy chain – and wrote that “recent NSA disclosures make clear that even when Internet giants like Google and Yahoo do not hand over data, the NSA and its intelligence partners can simply gather their data downstream… ”

“Everyone was so focused on the NSA secretly getting access to the front door that there was an assumption they weren’t going behind the companies’ backs and tapping data through the back door, too,” said Kevin Werbach, an associate professor at the Wharton School.

But they were going through the back door and of course, there’s a certain irony to Google’s consternation – they’ve been siphoning the personal information of its millions of users, too, and using it to turn Google into a marketing monolith.

In addition to the agency’s violations of cyberspace and thanks to Snowden, we also now know that for at least six years the NSA has been latching on to the records of every telephone call in America and tapping the phones of the leaders of some 35 other countries, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, the president of Brazil and two presidents of Mexico.

Vehemently protesting this telephone dragnet are three US senators – Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who write in a Times op-ed, “If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person’s phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

Senator Wyden also makes an appearance in this new New York Times video, “Why Care about the NSA?” which features Daniel Ellsberg, writer David Sirota and digital activism scholar Gabriella Coleman, among others.

Finally, if you seek a respite from Thanksgiving parades and football on TV and want to make the Times video one half of a double feature, there’s also this terrific explanatory animation, “The NSA and surveillance … made simple” from The Guardian which asks the fundamental question, “Does privacy have a future at all, on line?”

Sadly, I think we know the answer.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.
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  • Anthony Endres

    The effectiveness of such massive intrusive global mass surveillance programs for National Security are highly doubtful considering the fact that terrorism did not globally reduced but in fact increased significantly since the program..

    Such extensively globally intrusive surveillance program seems so rather massively abused for intellectual property thefts, for collecting of for example regular people’s thanks-given nudies and for other criminal activities rather more.

  • dirupt

    I have a data concern regarding Google. Only they know the true bell curve of the social psychology. So far the coalition is standing around looking confused as how to handle this situation. How about new policy proposals based off your collection of preferences? What about the need to be judged using data that accurately reflects the true preference distribution of the subject in question?