NSA and America’s Surveillance Overdrive

Posted by Admin On Sunday, 1 September 2013 0 comments

“The more a society monitors, controls, and observes its citizens, the less free it is” ~ Benjamin Franklin

The United States of America has long been known to have the world’s most advanced and sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities. Their external intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA, is the most well-known secret service around the world, even though their job is to remain – and keep their work – secret. Other agencies like the Mossad are much better at keeping their work as well as their existence secret: for instance, before 1996 (when Danny Yatom became the Director of Mossad) it was illegal to publish the name of the Mossad chief. The CIA is the most pervasive intelligence agency in the world, and definitely maintains its presence in almost all areas around the world – especially in areas where governments themselves can’t go, and even in places where Americans “aren’t welcome” (they are experts at bribing locals with the global currency, the US dollar, and have no shortage of such assets or informants, who bring them information from literally every corner of the world).
But there is another agency in the American Intelligence Community that is much less known – or much less popular, rather – until very recently, when one of its operatives/analysts leaked information that was sensitive to US national security – but important to leak so as to preserve the privacy and freedoms of the American people – and breached the terms of his contract with that agency. That agency is the National Security Agency, the NSA. Until very recently, the US National Security Agency (NSA) was out of the public limelight, only made famous by a few TV series like Fox’s “24”, and “Chuck”, which ran on NBC from 2007 to 2012, where the protagonist accidentally gets the NSA’s entire intelligence database (known in the TV series as “The Intersect”) subliminally implanted into his brain – the plot revolves around how Chuck helps agents from the NSA (and also, of course the CIA, who is represented by a female character that Chuck develops affections for) stop crime and thwart terror plots.
The NSA is part of the US Central Security Service (USCSS), and is primarily an agency that performs cryptological services and monitors US-wide and foreign communications. As such, it is “probably the least known and most poorly understoodgovernment intelligence agency”. As per their legal mandate, NSA employees decrypt foreign intelligence, generate encryption keys to secure American information, and handle data processing for the United States government. The mission of the NSA is “information assurance”, which refers to breaking foreign intelligence codes while retaining the security of American information, which is accomplished through encryption, secured computer systems, and access control. Since cryptology and communications interception is its primary task, the NSA worked with (hired, employed, contracted, what you will) code-breakers, intelligence analysts, mathematicians, and all kinds of people who had anything to do with making or breaking codes that could allow the NSA to “tap into” communication systems of all kinds. As such, most computer experts, internet whizzes, communications specialists and electronics professionals have either had indirect contact with, or have been contracted by a firm that works for the NSA, or have directly worked for the NSA in one capacity or another.
Unbeknownst to many, the NSA is much more secretive than the CIA, and according to many estimates, its size is ten times larger than that of the CIA – it will become even larger in September 2013 (read on to find out). Originally created to intercept and listen in to phone calls and other kinds of signals communications, the entire NSA changed once the Internet came into being. After the Internet was invented, and made available to people around the world, the NSA became the most effective intelligence collection agency in the world, while the CIA had to compete with other intelligence agencies in terms of human intelligence (HUMINT) and other forms of intelligence. Signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) was the primary domain of the NSA, which provided information to the US Intelligence Community in a way that no other agency – not even the CIA – could do for the US or for any other country. The NSA even built a “backdoor” into Microsoft Windows – the software platform used by every computer other than Apple products – in 1999. It was discovered as a variable name “_NSAKEY” in August 1999, and it thus became obvious that every Microsoft Windows computer that used the software – especially after installing the Windows NT 4 Service Pack 5 – was being watched by the NSA. But of course, Microsoft denies the whole thing with the argument that “it’s complicated, we can’t explain it, we wish we could” (according to a TIME article). Even if the “_NSAKEY” idea isn’t true, what Microsoft and NSA agreed to in 2007 (read on to find out) is. And there is much, much more the NSA did to become the “Big Brother” that George Orwell wrote about in his book “1984”, and there is a lot of power that the NSA has accumulated because in the modern day and age, information is power. And if the NSA does not have (or already have) all the information, it can easily get it. Such is the almighty power of the NSA, that it can be considered the all-seeing eye frequently referred to in illuminati conspiracy theories and even on the US dollar bill(s).
However, all that may change because Edward Snowden, a computer specialist who formerly worked at the NSA as well as the CIA, revealed how the (former) agency was illegally invading the online privacy of American citizens – and it is safe to assume that since the Internet is spread all over the world (hence the World Wide Web) the NSA was monitoring Internet communications all over the world, leaving the online communications of no netizen (internet citizen) or online corporation around the world private and confidential. Snowden revealed documents classified “top secret” to Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill showing that the NSA had developed a top secret program called PRISM which tapped into – and had direct and unfettered access to – the servers of Google, Apple, Facebook, and many other online services. The heavily redacted 85 page document can be viewed here, but there is little point to getting into the specifics, since the main points of the story are already out in the public. The information now available with the public is so damaging that even incumbent US President, Barack Obama, has to lie about the reality of NSA surveillance.
And of course, these online services aren’t only used in the United States. They are used all around the world. So NSA has access to all our secret, confidential data, without us knowing it – till Edward Snowden decided to tell us. Apart from the services mentioned above, online services and technology companies whose servers are open to access by PRISM include Yahoo, Hotmail, Skype, YouTube, and AOL (perhaps only Dropbox did not give in to the PRISM subpoena – or so they say). The first service to sign on to the PRISM program was? Microsoft, on September 11, 2007. The PRISM program – officially known by the Signals Intelligence Activity Designator (SIGAD) US-984XN – is the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports and, according to the Washington Post and even page 71 of theredacted documents that make references to it, accounts for 91% of the NSA’s Internet traffic acquired under the authority granted to the NSA by FISA’s section 702.
All this started after 9/11, when then-US President George W. Bush promulgated the President’s Surveillance Program, which also included the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The intent was to monitor communications – inside the US, of course, but all around the world is subject to debate – in order to intercept terrorist communications and thwart another devastating terror attack on US soil. Through these broad Presidential orders, the NSA had blanket powers to conduct wireless tapping of all forms of communication, whether telephonic, or email, or videoconferencing: all this has been documented as the “NSA warrantless surveillance controversy” than ran from 2001 to 2007. The program expired on February 1, 2007, but was given new life by the “Protect America Act” passed in August 2007, and then by the FISA Amendments Act (“FAA”) in July 2008, under which these programs operate till date. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a webpage on how the NSA’s domestic (intra-US) spying program works. And as anti-terror funding increased, the CIA grew, and the NSA grew larger. The NSA acquired such great power (not authority – which was limited and legally restricted, at least in technical terms, unless it was violated, which it was) that it became the eyes and ears of the US government. Some NSA employees even spied on people they were dating (and who can blame people working in sensitive intelligence agencies for being paranoid about everything?). According to a Guardian article by Adam Gabbatt on August 24, 2013, the NSA acknowledged that “very rare instances of wilful violations of NSA’s authorities” had occurred, and that one NSA analyst had been reprimanded for abusing the agency’s surveillance systems and spying on his or her (the employee’s identity or gender was not revealed) former spouse. The Wall Street Journal stated that the practice wasn’t frequent but was common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT. The Guardian also made reference to this spycraft label.
This just goes to show how far one can abuse the power one acquires when employed by an intelligence agency. If David Petraeus, a highly decorated US General who was serving as the Director of the CIA, was bound to retire on moral grounds because he was cheating on his wife, then surely these “low-level” employees should not only be fired from their jobs, but should face criminal charges for illegal use of government facilities for their own personal vendettas (and what the victim would call “malicious stalking who is monitoring their every move” or other euphemisms to that effect).
After Snowden, another former NSA employee, Charles Seife, has come forward and urged his former colleagues and fellow mathematicians to speak out about the invasion of privacy and abuse of power by the NSA, which goes against the US’ own laws, the rights of its citizens protected by the US Constitution and enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Seife writes:
“We know that the agency has extensive capabilities to snoop on U.S. citizens and regularly does so accidentally. And we have credible allegations that the agency sometimes uses that information quite on purpose. If the agency’s tools truly are used only against the enemy, it seems that ordinary citizens are now being counted among them.”
And this is not the first time that US citizens have been considered the enemy by their government. If the NSA has been wiretapping and bugging all US citizens without any fears since 9/11, then that means that the US government is afraid of every US citizen, whether Muslim or not, whether Arab or not. One must also ask: is the NSA spying on US government employees, or even public representatives like Senators and Congressmen? What about White House employees – is their every move watched and every act of (electronic) communication monitored by the NSA?
How will the size of the NSA change? After the Snowden revelations, which caused great consternation among the NSA in particular and the US Intelligence Community and White House Administration in general, the agency has decided to fire almost 90% of its system administrators – not to avoid future leaks, as one might readily (and accurately) assume, since the NSA is surely not worried about any future Edward Snowdens – because they are in the process of “automating” their data cycles. NSA Director Keith Alexander, a serving four-star general of the United States Army who is also the Chief of the Central Security Service (NSA’s parent agency) and the United States Cyber Command (one of the US military’s sub-unified combatant command that reports to the US Strategic Command, one of the nine unified combatant commands of the US Army), says that “we’ve put people in the loop of transferring data, securing networks and doing things that machines are probably better at doing”. Basically, General Alexander prefers machines rather than human beings at intelligence work as well as decryption work – the General has had a long career in the US Army doing intelligence work at different ranks, especially at senior ranks in the Pentagon and when serving for the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military.
So if you think that the Terminator was just a movie, General Alexander might just prove you wrong in a few years… or decades.
Edward Snowden revealed that the PRISM program was started in 2007 under the auspices of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and even though it is supervised by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the extent of mass data collection under the PRISM program alone was far greater than what the public knew, and activities conducted under the PRISM program were“dangerous” and “criminal”. What’s more, Glenn Greenwald stated in clear and unequivocal terms what NSA employees – even low-level analysts – could do. Normally when a user goes to a website to access his or her email, or Facebook account, he or she has to enter the username as well as the password. Greenwald said that once an NSA employee obtains an email address or an IP address, all he or she has to do is enter it into his NSA system, and all phone calls, emails, even browsing histories and Google searches (practically all online and communications data) made so far – and also those that will be made for that communication system in the future – will be available to the NSA employee without a warrant, without going to a court, even without a supervisor in charge! No wonder NSA employees were spying on people they were dating, wondering if they found the right one or not, or if their boyfriends or girlfriends were cheating on them or not. According to Greenwald, these systems by the NSA make all legal constraints – including FISA – redundant because it is much faster and much easier to initiate surveillance than to wait for the legal process to take its course. The end result? Privacy – and many other rights and civil liberties of US citizens which they are constitutionally entitled to – no longer exists. UK citizens should worry about the same, since their Intelligence Community relies on the Tempora program for services that the PRISM performs for the US – and both countries share information generated by PRISM.
Make no mistake: thanks to the US NSA, George Orwell’s “1984” is a reality.
And that’s not all. PRISM is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an entire list of US government surveillance projects and operations that are ongoing. If America’s signals intelligence paranoia and online mass data collection overdrive haven’t aroused your attention so far, there are always keywords you can search and Wikipedia pages you can visit for things like “Boundless Informant” (a big data analysis and visualization program used by the US Intelligence Community to collect, collate and present information collected from all of NSA’s worldwide data collection activities and all SIGADs), “Dropmire” (the program used by the US to spy on foreign embassies and diplomatic staff – a direct violation of the Vienna Convention and many other international agreements and statutes – and even its own NATO allies, among other unwitting victims such as the current UN Secretary, General Ban Ki-moon), “Stellar Wind” (a codename for the first surveillance program initiated after 9/11, which led the NSA to build America’s largest spy center in Utah, the Utah Data Center which will become operational in September 2013, practically a few days or weeks from now – the revelation came from Wired.com’s James Bamford), and “XKeyscore” (a “formerly” secret computer system used by the NSA for searching and analyzing Internet data about foreign nationals across the world).
And these are only the intelligence collection mechanisms – or America’s privacy invasion tools, rather – that we know about, or that have been leaked, or declassified. Who knows what other kinds of programs are in place, and what they do. Maybe Hollywood has a better idea; after all, they came up with blockbuster movies like the Terminator trilogy, the Matrix trilogy and Echelon Conspiracy. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Can the same be said for machines? If our privacy and security is being handed over to them, one hopes that they don’t get corrupted…
But anyone who owns a computer or any electronic device knows that it can get “corrupted”, which means that it can stop working. Unlike humans, who do wrong things when they are corrupted, machines stop doing anything when they are corrupted. Still, this is wishful thinking. All we can now do is hope and pray that General Keith Alexander – and the NSA – don’t leave the American public (and the entire human race, for that matter) at the mercy of the machines, no matter how smarter artificial intelligence is (or how smarter they think it is) compared to human intelligence…
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