NSA Leaks: Are there really hundreds of millions of terrorist telephones? (spoiler alert: probably not.)
As the Washington Post reports, documents from Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks reveal that the NSA is collecting 5 billion telephone records daily and uses a suite of tools known as Co-Traveller to track the location and social relationships of “foreign targets.”
The NSA is said to track “at least hundreds of millions of devices [emphasis mine]” and can identify a person’s travels, both present and past, anywhere on the planet.
Notable quote from the end of the article:
“The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”
That is perhaps because this revelation, like so many about the NSA’S activities since the summer of 2013, are utterly embarrassing for the White House.
Hundreds of millions of foreign terrorists?
So can there be hundreds of millions of (foreign) terrorists? Of course not. On the face of it, that idea is patently absurd. Even if you shrink the number of individuals by assuming that each of the alleged terrorists uses several cell phones. Vastly greater than the number of actual terrorists could ever be are the following groups: radicals, dissenters, third party politicians, or—that is where the money is—(foreign) business leaders.
If, however, the definition of terrorist is widened so far that it becomes to mean “anyone who dares to disagree with anything the (U.S.) government does,” then that would be the antithesis to liberal democracy—it is a characteristic of a totalitarian concept of statehood.
The real threat to liberty is the national security state
The out-of-control national security establishment of the U.S., and by extension that of other states, such as the UK and Germany, and the narrative of the preventive national security state itself, are the real threat to civil liberties in the U.S. and abroad.
As serious a problem and as ghastly as terrorist attacks are, the scope of their detrimental effects on democracy could never dream to be as big as those caused by our own governments’ reactions to them.
Permanent war and liberty cannot coexist
We must recognize that the ugly head of authoritarianism is rising among us, using the phantom of terrorism to scare us into giving up our liberties. As a “War against Terrorism” can by definition never end, because terrorism is a tactic, not a specific enemy, the logical conclusion of such an endless state of emergency must be the permanent destruction of civil liberties.
Do we really want to live in such a world? I certainly do not. If there is no reform of the intelligence services to achieve a balance between the legitimate goal of preventing terrorism and the rights of the individual not to be put under surveillance without reasonable suspicion, like in East Germany during the GDR, then we all lose our freedom.
On June 6, 2013, the British Guardian newspaper, based on information from—as we now know—former NSA analyst Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the agency’s PRISM program. This NSA surveillance program is capable of spying on everybody’s online communications via backdoors/direct access to products and services from Apple, Google/YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo, AOL, and PalTalk—basically all the big players in today’s digital world that most people are using in some or other form (full disclosure: me, too).
“There is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. [emphasis mine]” – Glenn Greenwald on CNN, 2013/06/07
Here is the series of articles from the Guardian (watch the dramatic build-up):
On June 25, journalist Glenn Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden had given encrypted documents to several people as an insurance. Should “anything happe[n]” to him—translation: Should the intelligence services murder him—those documents would be released:
On July 1, the Guardian revealed documents showing that the US intelligence services are spying on other state’s embassies, including members of the EU. – This last point I did not find very surprising, as governments want to know what other governments are up to.
It is not just the US spying:
On June 17, the Guardian reveales that the British GCHQ spied on G20 summits by tapping politicians’ phones and setting up fake Internet cafés.
On June 21, the Guardian revealed GCHQ’s “Tempora” program which spies on global Internet communications and shares that information with the NSA, making a mockery of the US government’s claim that US citizens should not worry, because those programs are ‘only’ directed at foreigners. If every allied state ‘only’ surveilles foreigners and then exchanges that information with the others, that is a complete surveillance. To claim otherwise is just semantic games.
In the court of public opinion, a fierce debate over whether whistleblowers like Snowden are heroes or traitors is unfolding.
The government’s apparent strategy so far has been to shift attention from mass surveillance to whistleblower Edward Snowden and his (in their view) wrongdoing.
[Update, June 22, 2013] The Department of Justice charges Snowden with ” espionage and theft of government property.”
“USA: Snowden wird zum Verräter [erklärt].” – (Sabine Muscat, Zeit Online, 26.06.2013) – Die öffentliche Meinung in den USA kippt gegen Edward Snowden, weil er über Staaten geflohen ist, die den USA gegenüber mehr oder weniger feindselig eingestellt sind (Hong Kong/China, Kuba (wohl doch nicht), Russland).
[Update, July 1, 2013] The past two weeks have produced a plethora of stories about the cat and mouse game playing out between a fugitive Edward Snowden and the US government. Unfortunately, this focus on the person of Snowden and a spy-thriller-like chase around the globe along the lines of “Where in the world is Edward Snowden?” has been a distraction from the real issue at hand.
That issue is the blanket surveillance of citizens by their democratically elected governments, who increasingly view their own populations as potential enemies. In the national security state, a mockery is made of the rule of law by turning the long-standing legal principle of the presumption of innocence on its head. But as history has shown over and over, creating secretive, all-powerful, and unaccountable institutions inevitably leads to abuses. That is why President Obama’s message of ‘Trust us, we’re the good guys.’ is in the end meaningless.
And to be clear, the problem here is not just with the US government. At least since 2001, there has been a general trend within Western democracies of justifying all kinds of anti-democratic legal measures with reference to the necessity of fighting terrorism. But as important as that may be—and I do believe that terrorism poses a threat—these efforts are never worth turning our democracies into authoritarian surveillance states.
House Speaker John Boehner (R) called Snowden a “traitor.” Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) lambasted Snowden as “a high-school drop-out who had little maturity [and] had not successfully completed anything he had undertaken.” The point about lack of formal credentials might be true, but until Snowden became a whistleblower, his employers in the intelligence services and defense contractors obviously valued his skills.
On June 16, former Vice President Dick Cheney, unsurprisingly, joined the chorus of those calling Snowden “a traitor” and implied that Snowden might be a Chinese spy.
Independent of how one thinks of Snowden’s leaking in detail, that development is an alarming trend, indicative of a much bigger problem with mainstream media in the US.
The concept of an adversarial press, which is absolutely necessary to keep the government honest, has apparently been long-lost on many established so-called journalists, spoiled by their access and personal wealth. Rather than by default challenging the official statements of the government in search for the truth, these figures have decided to become the American version of Pravda. This is to the detriment of public awareness within a democracy. These parts of the press should remember the great American tradition of muckraking journalism.
Here is Glenn Greenwald’s article about how he is now on the receiving end of personal smears for working with Snowden as a source:
There is also some blatant partisanship going on around the issue. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly supported the NSA’s domestic spying under President Bush and now, under Obama, opposes it. Democratic Senator Al Franken, a harsh critic of the some practices under the Bush administration, now supports similar practices under a Democratic president.
Civil libertarian Senator Obama in 2007 versus national security hawk President Obama in 2013
You might remember a little-known Senator from Chicago who once was big on civil liberties. Here is what he said in 2007 about the massive surveillance put in place by the Bush administration:
“This [Bush’s] administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary. [emphasis mine]”
Against the recent revelations about the scope of the NSA’s mass surveillance, I can think of but two possible conclusions. Either Obama never really believed what he said back then and was just going to cynically exploit the growing public unease about Bush’s post-9/11 surveillance state, or, once elected President, he was swarmed by national security advisors who made him reconsider—everything (Richard A. Clarke seems to confirm the latter below).
Down the memory hole: Change.gov quietly removes pledge to protect whistleblowers
As the Sunlight Foundationreports, a pledge to protect whistleblowers was quietly removed from Change.gov, the website set up by Obama’s transition team, in July 2013. Here is what it said:
“Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process [emphasis mine].”
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, just as the NSA does not ‘forget’ any of our data, the Internet does not forget either. So this likely attempt to sweep an apparent and embarassing broken campaign promise under the rug will not be allowed to succeed.
One excellent resource on Obama’s transformation is http://www.obamatheconservative.com/ , a website by Ilari Kaila and Tim Paige “tracking Obama’s abandoning of the progressive agenda, and the disconnect between his words and deeds.”
Richard A. Clarke, a top counter-terrorism official under Clinton and Bush, Jr., voiced his concerns about government overreach in regards to the general collection of telephone records in an editorial for NYDailyNews.com:
“I am troubled by the precedent of stretching a law on domestic surveillance almost to the breaking point. On issues so fundamental to our civil liberties, elected leaders should not be so needlessly secretive.”
“[Obama] inherited this vacuum cleaner approach to telephone records from Bush. When Obama was briefed on it, there was no forceful and persuasive advocate for changing it. His chief adviser on these things at the time was John Brennan, a life-long CIA officer.”
“[W]e should worry about this program because government agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have a well-established track record of overreaching, exceeding their authority and abusing the law. The FBI has used provisions of the Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, for purposes that greatly exceed congressional intent. [emphasis mine]”
Top spooks in denial mode
Earlier this year, on March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress and was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) whether the NSA gathered “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.” As is now quite clear, Clapper lied “gave the least untruthful answer possible” when he denied it back then, as he now tells NBC News (June 11, 2013).
[Update] On June 18, NSA chief General Keith Alexander testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the two recently revealed surveillance programs PRISM and Boundless Informant. When asked whether the NSA was technically capable of spying on Americans’ phone calls or emails, he said this:
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Does the NSA have the ability to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails under these two programs?
ALEXANDER: No, we do not have that authority.
ROGERS: Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails?
Did you notice the diversion? Alexander did not reply to the question about capability but said that the NSA did not have the authority to spy on Americans. Technically, the NSA might not have a mechanical switch—that image seems rather anachronistic—but as whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed, it works via software on computers.
[Update] During his visit to Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Obama defended the NSA programs while talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that the NSA would not scan ordinary citizens’ emails at home or abroad:
“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else,” he said. “This is not a situation where we can go on to the internet and start searching any way we want.” – Barack Obama, June 19, 2013
But this does not seem wholly convincing, given that the basic principle of big data analysis on the scale of intelligence services such as the NSA contains the search for patterns in enormous amounts of data.
But there is also keyword analysis. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security released a list of keywords that it monitored on social media channels—after being sued to release the document.
Corporations like Google already scan all emails for keywords for the commercial purpose of displaying fitting ads to their users.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the only feasible way for intelligence services to check on a broad scale whether Bob is sending dangerous contents to Sally, is to scan emails for keywords. But to do that, they must have access to all those emails.
From this premise it follows that by design, the intelligence services have a vested interest in scanning all email traffic. If they do not bug individual computers in targeted operations, how else should they find out whatever they are looking for? Therefore, the denials of James Clapper, Keith Alexander, and Barack Obama seem rather unbelievable.
What do Americans think about surveillance, according to polls?
Fourty-five percent of Americans, according to a recent poll by the Washington Post and Pew, are willing to be spied on for a false sense of security.
Many think that they personally ‘have nothing to hide’ and that surveillance is thus not detrimental to them. But everybody has something to hide.
If the supposedly benevolent guardians of the NSA decided one day that democracy is, let’s say, a little outdated in a world where capitalism and authoritarianism converge so neatly, there would be big trouble ahead (see the Atlantic piece linked below).
As many historians will tell you, there is really nothing new under the sun. As npr reports, Americans have been ambivalent about the balance between security and privacy since the beginning of the country:
[Op-Ed] “Was Cheney Right About Obama?” (Patrick Radden Keefe, New Yorker, 2013/06/11) – Very interesting point: Former Vice President Dick Cheney, the architect of the Bush administration’s executive power grab, said in an exit interview in 2008 that Obama, or any successor, for that matter, would like the additional powers, once he gets into office. The article argues that Obama, as a candidate in 2008, benefitted massively from leaks which his administration now mercilessly persecutes. “Obama,” Radden Keefe writes, “knew the full extent of [the Bush administration’s] excesses because of unauthorized disclosures to the press. Without leaks, Barack Obama might never have been elected to begin with.”
[Op-Ed] “A Real Debate on Surveillance.” (New York Times Editorial Board, 2013/06/10) – Obama’s new ‘openness’ about surveillance is hypocritical, opines the New York Times.
“Our Reflection in the N.S.A.’s Prism.” (Maria Bustillos, New Yorker, 2013/06/09) – On PRISM, Boundless Informant, tech companies’ denial of their complicity with the NSA, and prior warnings about a growing surveillance state.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 64: “75% of the Internet.” (unfilter Episode 64, 2013/08/21) – [Podcast] – “Declassified documents [. . .] reveal the NSA has intentionally abused their surveillance program, and retained data on US citizens despite a court order. [. . .] [T]he NSA collects nearly 75% of all US Internet traffic. David Miranda[,] Glenn Greenwald’s partner was held for nine hours under an Orwellian anti-terrorism law.”
[Podcast] “Die unerwünschte Diskussion – NSA Prism und die deutsche Politik.” (Peter Carstens, Deutschlandfunk, 17.08.2013) – Im deutschen Bundestagswahlkampf 2013 konnte die SPD mit dem Überwachungsskandal bisher kaum Punkte machen, da auch SPD-Politiker maßgeblich an der deutsch-amerikanischen geheimdienstlichen Zusammenarbeit nach 2001 beteiligt waren.
[Podcast] “Geheimdienste – Du warst es. Nein, du!” (Sebastian Sonntag, DRadio Wissen, 08.08.2013) – “Sebastian Sonntag mit der Webschau zum Polittheater um den BND-Skandal.” Über die Rolle der SPD bei der Zusammenarbeit zwischen BND und NSA.
[Podcast] “Spionage im Netz ist Selbstschutz.” – Der Politikwissenschaftler Anthony Glees meint: “Privates wird öffentlich – das ist nicht Folge von Schnüffelei, sondern die Logik des Internet-Zeitalters.” (Anthony Glees, Ortszeit:Politisches Feuilleton, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 08.07.2013) Anmerkung meinerseits: Ich finde, Spionage ist nicht gleich Spionage. Dass sich Regierungen gegenseitig ausspionieren ist etwas völlig anderes als wenn Geheimdienste die verdachtsunabhängige Totalüberwachung ihrer Bürger*innen und der anderer Staaten verfolgen.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 58: “Standing with Ed.” (unfilter Episode 58, 2013/07/10) – “New leaks give us a better picture of how the NSA vacuums up your Internet traffic, and leverages their relationships with telecom companies to take what they want. Then Latin America stands with Snowden as multiple offers of asylum come in, we’ll bring you up to date on the hunt for Snowden and discuss his latest revelations.”
[Podcast] “Der NSA-Skandal und die Precrime-Fantasien der Ermittlungsbehörden.” – “Vera Linß diskutiert mit Alexander Markowetz, Ben Kees, Niko Härting und Benedikt Köhler im Online Talk darüber, [. . .] inwieweit sich mithilfe von Algorithmen und anderen Technologien kriminelle oder überhaupt Verhaltensmuster identifizieren und vor allem prognostizieren [lassen].” (NETZ.REPORTER XL, DRadio Wissen Online Talk, 07.07.2013)
[Podcast] breitband “Vergiss’ den Schlüssel nicht!” – Zur digitalen Selbstverteidigung mit Crypto-Tools, Cryptoparties und dem Erfinder der Computermaus, Doug Engelbart. (DRadio breitband, 06.07.2013)
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 57: “Obama Is Afraid Of You.” (unfilter Episode 57, 2013/07/03) – “Obama shrugged [Snowden] off, calling him some 29 year old hacker. But this week the administration’s actions spoke louder than their words. Their hunt for Edward Snowden intensifies as they twist the arm of Vladimir Putin, ground the jet of the Bolivian president, and placing frantic calls to nation leaders around the world.”
[Podcast] “Bändigt den Geheimdienst!” – Donya Farahani in der Webschau über die Proteste und Aktionen gegen Online-Überwachung. (DRadio WIssen, 28.06.2013)
[Podcast] Logbuch Netzpolitik, Episode 69: “Räume für Spezialbehandlung.” (LNP069, 27.06.2013) – Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove berichten über Edward Snowdens Flucht und das britische Spionageprogramm “Tempora”.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 56: “From Russia With Love.” (unfilter Episode 56, 2013/06/26) – “Edward Snowden [. . .] makes his escape from Hong Kong. We’ll reflect on [the mainstream media’s] continued character assassination [. . .].”; Britain’s GCHQ and the NSA share info [from Internet fiber optic cables], create “world-wide police state.”; the death of American investigative journalist Michael hastings and the technical possibility of hacking car control systems.
[Podcast] Datenkanal, Folge 25: “National Security Agency.” (21.06.2013) – Der Datenkanal-Podcast aus Jena gibt einen ausführlichen Überblick über die Geschichte der NSA.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 55: “Snowden is Snowed Under.” (unfilter Episode 55, 2013/06/19) – “In the wake of the NSA leaks we’re being told to trust the government with our simple data, it’s the leaker we need to worry about. Edward Snowden takes to the web to defend his name, while the top officials in US intelligence answer softball questions read from prepared statements.”
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 54: “The NSA PRISM.” (unfilter Episode 54, 2013/06/12) – “We’ll dig into the new revelations, how this could be technically be done, and then we’ll expose the lapdog media’s attempt manipulate the narrative.”
[Podcast] IQ – Wissenschaft und Forschung: “Spionage.” (IQ – Wissenschaft und Forschung, Bayern 2, 12.06.2013) – Wie die Überwachung des Internet technisch funktioniert.
[Podcast] Logbuch Netzpolitik, Episode 67: “Schon lange nichts mehr auf NSA gepostet.” (LNP067, 11.06.2013) – Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove berichten über das amerikanische PRISM und die deutsche Variante “Strategische Fernmeldeaufklärung”.
[Podcast] Common Sense with Dan Carlin, Episode 255: “The Big Long Surveillance Show.” (2013/06/10) – Dan Carlin points out the historical irony of the Guardian, a British newspaper, taking on the role of the fourth estate on behalf of American citizens’ civil liberties.
[Podcast] EconTalk “Schneier on Power, the Internet, and Security.” (2013/06/10) – In a recent episode of EconTalk, security expert Bruce Schneier talks, among other things, about the worrying encroachments of the national security state and how the powerful have adapted to use the Internet to solidify their grip.
Other resources about Internet surveillance in general:
http://buggedplanet.info – “A [Wiki] about Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Communication Intelligence (COMINT), Tactical and Strategical Measures used to intercept Communications and the Vendors and Governmental and Private Operators of this Technology.