Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Like the Lawless Wild West

Trey Smith

What a week! Shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that maybe our government had gone "too far" in its surveillance programs, the Washington Post dropped another Edward Snowden bombshell demonstrating that it is going a whole lot farther than we knew.

If Kerry's ersatz admission -- couched in a defense of National Security Agency surveillance -- provoked a collective yawn from many who follow these developments, the latest Snowden stuff snapped us to attention. The Post published an article detailing the NSA's interception of information coming in and out of Google and Yahoo servers over non-public, internal network fibre optic lines. In December, 2012 alone, the program (revealingly called "MUSCULAR") processed 181,280,466 Google and Yahoo records that included email, searches, videos and photos.

Up to now, the NSA has defended its actions by telling us it is combating terrorism through the capture of data in a public space, the Internet, after obtaining court orders. This shows they were lying. MUSCULAR is the theft of about 25 percent of all Internet data from two of the most popular data handling companies with no court orders or advisories in complete defiance of the law and our rights. It is, quite simply, government gangsterism.

And it brings into focus the most important question: why? Because this isn't about counter-terrorism, not with that many records and their surreptitious capture. This is about surveillance and analysis of the daily communications of an entire country and much of the world.

The technology of MUSCULAR, a program jointly carried on by the NSA and its British counterpart, isn't hard to explain. Essentially, technologists at the spy agency have figured out a way to intercept data being exchanged among servers that store everything you do on Google and Yahoo.

Here's the difference between this and other previously revealed spying programs. Your data travels over the Internet to get to those servers and be stored there. For others to see what data you've stored, it must travel out, again over the Internet. That's legally protected data and the NSA (at least theoretically) needs a court order to remove it from those servers. The FISA court (the NSA's blessing source) almost always rubber stamps NSA requests so it's pretty easy to conduct that kind of data extraction but at least there is still a record of what the NSA is looking for and why and some grounds for taking legal action against it.

Muscular doesn't go near the data as it's traveling on the Internet or while it's on those servers. Instead it intercepts data that's already been stored and is traveling through non-public connections between each company's many servers as the companies synchronize stored data or transfer it internally. Internet giants like Google transfer data among their servers constantly in networks of servers known as (you've heard it before) "clouds". This constant transfer helps distribute server activity so that a sudden spike in requests for data on a particular server doesn't crash it (called "load management") or for maintenance, security and other reasons. To do this they use special fibre-optic wires that connect their various servers and are not publicly available.

The data transferred among these servers is typically encoded so nobody can read it without having the decoding keys. That's a security measure. According to these reports, the NSA has figured out a way to decode those formats, then captures the data being transferred by tapping into these internal connections and then, without anyone outside the NSA knowing it, decodes the stuff and analyses it to decide what, if anything, they want to do with it.
~ from NSA Intercepted Data from Google and Yahoo Servers; Monitors Nearly Everyone's Internet Use by Alfredo Lopez ~
What does all this mean? Well, it means that all you folks out there who believe that the Congress, judiciary or President have any sort of power or influence over the NSA have been put on notice that such assumptions are wrong. As the continued revelations point out, the NSA doesn't seem to answer to anyone but itself! (It doesn't answer to itself all that much either.)

This is why I have suggested that it may be impossible to put this genie back into the bottle. Sure, the President can issue directives, Congress can pass legislation and the courts can render decisions, but not one of these branches knows the full extent to what the NSA is up to and capable of. We have to go either on what they tell us -- and lying is their stock-and-trade -- or from revelations disclosed by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. For all Snowden has disclosed, we can only guess that this represents the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The NSA is behaving like a lawman in the lawless wild west. Back in the day, it was often hard to determine the good guys from the bad guys because each side employed what we might call shady practices. Some of the lawmen -- like Wyatt Earp -- spent much of their adult lives bumping back and forth between lawman and outlaw!

Hmm. That might be an apt description for the NSA as well.

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