New tech is
always a double-edged sword, with benefits balanced to an extent by the risk
of misuse by idiots or criminals. Airplanes make possible fast travel but
also saturation bombing; biotech gives us stem cell treatments and frankenfoods; antidepressants and painkillers help some
people and addict countless others. TV, nuclear power, cars; pretty much the
whole of the modern world has up-and-downsides.
this progress has been a good thing -- no one with any sense would go back to
the days before antibiotics and iPhones. But the risks that come with so much
new power are growing exponentially, so the good might not always outweigh
us to computers and telecommunications: Cell phones and the Internet have
opened the global economy to pretty much everyone with an active mind while
democratizing politics and bringing down dictatorships around the world. But
those same technologies strengthen the more advanced states in terrifying
ways with, as is usually the case lately, the US behaving like the craziest
inmate in the asylum. Below are some excerpts from a recent Wired
Magazine story on the US plan to intercept, store and mine pretty
much the entire infosphere -- all your phone calls,
emails, texts, FaceBook posts, everything.
construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named
Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project
of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over
the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast
swaths of the world's communications as they zap down from satellites and zip
through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and
domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and
running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored
in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including
the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches,
as well as all sorts of personal data trails--parking receipts, travel
itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital "pocket
litter." It is, in some measure, the realization of the "total
information awareness" program created during the first term of the Bush
administration--an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused
an outcry over its potential for invading Americans' privacy.
"this is more than just a data center," says one senior
intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The
mammoth Bluffdale center will have another
important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is
also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial,
because much of the data that the center will handle--financial information,
stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets,
legal documents, confidential personal
communications--will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official
also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several
years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex
encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also
many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this
official: "Everybody's a target; everybody with communication is a
For the first
time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration--the
NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has
established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through
billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the
country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable
speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has
begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and
whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it's all being done
in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never
Say Anything applies more than ever.
stored in Bluffdale will naturally go far beyond
the world's billions of public web pages. The NSA is more interested in the
so-called invisible web, also known as the deep web or deepnet--data
beyond the reach of the public. This includes password-protected data, US and
foreign government communications, and noncommercial file-sharing between
trusted peers. "The deep web contains government reports, databases, and
other sources of information of high value to DOD and the intelligence
community," according to a 2010 Defense Science Board report.
"Alternative tools are needed to find and index data in the deep web ...
Stealing the classified secrets of a potential adversary is where the
[intelligence] community is most comfortable." With its new Utah Data
Center, the NSA will at last have the technical capability to store, and
rummage through, all those stolen secrets. The question, of course, is how
the agency defines who is, and who is not, "a potential adversary."
The NSA has
long been free to eavesdrop on international satellite communications. But
after 9/11, it installed taps in US telecom "switches," gaining
access to domestic traffic. An ex-NSA official says there are 10 to 20 such
installations. According to a knowledgeable intelligence source, the NSA has
installed taps on at least a dozen of the major overseas communications
links, each capable of eavesdropping on information passing by at a high data
on Americans doesn't stop at the telecom switches. To capture satellite
communications in and out of the US, the agency also monitors AT&T's
powerful earth stations, satellite receivers in locations that include
Roaring Creek and Salt Creek. Tucked away on a back road in rural Catawissa,
Pennsylvania, Roaring Creek's three 105-foot dishes handle much of the
country's communications to and from Europe and the Middle East. And on an
isolated stretch of land in remote Arbuckle, California, three similar dishes
at the company's Salt Creek station service the Pacific Rim and Asia.
communications are intercepted and stored, the data-mining begins. "You
can watch everybody all the time with data- mining," [another former NSA
official] says. Everything a person does becomes
charted on a graph, "financial transactions or travel or anything,"
he says. Thus, as data like bookstore receipts, bank statements, and commuter
toll records flow in, the NSA is able to paint a more and more detailed
picture of someone's life.
The NSA also
has the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls directly and in real time.
According to Adrienne J. Kinne, who worked both
before and after 9/11 as a voice interceptor at the NSA facility in Georgia,
in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks "basically all rules were
thrown out the window, and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to
spy on Americans." In secret listening rooms nationwide, NSA software
examines every email, phone call, and tweet as they zip by.
Sitting in a
restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40
years of his life, [a former NSA official who left when the agency began
violating the Constitution with impunity] holds his thumb and forefinger
close together. "We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian
state," he says.
To sum up:
Pretty soon the US will have the ability to capture every signal flowing in,
out, and within the country, store it all, break whatever encryption protects
it, and mine it for any sign of dissent. And it's all being done for our own
good, to protect us from enemies that mean us harm.
flash mobs that use social media to stay one step ahead of local riot police
look a lot more amateurish and less formidable.
are unanswered here, mostly centering on how the government is getting away
with this. Not so long ago a wiretap took a warrant, signed by a judge and
attested to by law enforcement officers who claimed constitutionally valid
probable cause. How did the NSA suddenly acquire the power to spy at will on
all US citizens, and why isn't it front page news like the debate over the
government's ability to force citizens to buy health insurance?
above with the recent defense bill that gave the military the right to detain
and even kill American citizens who are "suspected" of a connection
to terrorism and, as the former NSA guy says, we have all the necessary
pieces for a dystopia right out of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. Happy
birthday, Big Brother!