June 06, 2013

The Soviet Surveillance States of America

[Please note: Reference links associated with this item are at the end of the posting.]

In Theodore J. Flicker's prescient, darkly comical 1967 film -- "The President's Analyst" -- there's a bit of dialogue I've quoted many times over the decades. A Soviet spy and an American spy, friends of long standing, despite being on opposite sides, are working together informally. When the object of their common search appears to have been kidnapped right under their noses, the American spy suggests that the phone booth they'd been using was tapped.

The Russian is incredulous. "Are you trying to tell me that every phone in the country is tapped?" "That's what's in my head," replies the U.S. agent. "But Don! This is America, nor Russia!" exclaims the Russian.

The film's parallels go even further. The U.S. is being essentially run by the bureaucrats of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- spying and wiretapping everywhere, while the president is implicitly relegated to the role of a largely impotent bystander.

Needless to say, the movie did not go over well with the U.S. authorities in 1967. It's likely nobody would dare produce such a film today.

For students of U.S. intelligence and law, the new confirmation that the federal government has been collecting phone call detail records en masse on Americans shouldn't come as a big surprise. The major phone companies have long considered such data a mere commodity, and built enormous businesses selling this kind of information to third parties, emboldened by a variety of court decisions.

The knee-jerk PATRIOT Act legislation following 9/11 set the stage for even worse abuses in this sphere -- even though one of its authors is today claiming that this isn't what he actually had in mind. Apology not accepted -- the abuse potential of PATRIOT was obvious from day one.

Still, the current round of revelations are obviously very upsetting, more so for how they help us connect the dots than for their specifics in this case.

While we've only seen one leaked document so far in this round, we can safely assume that similar orders exist for every other major telecom carrier, reaching back to at least 2006 and the Bush administration. Given NSA's known proclivity for the "vacuum cleaner" approach to data collection -- essentially that they don't consider "mere" collection an abuse, or even really collection at all until specific data is analyzed -- such activities likely go back even further in at least some respects.

We now also have confirmation that top Congressional leaders have known about this -- some of them likely since the very beginning. Their remarks today are enormously telling and troubling.

We're told that this massive operation was justified because it "stopped a terrorist" attack. That could mean pretty much anything, considering the low threshold now employed to define violent acts as terrorism. But how are we to know if any sort of reasonable balance has been achieved between our civil rights vs. "preventing attacks" of any sorts? Would the same effect be achievable in a much less invasive manner? Why bother even figuring that out if you can just order the phone companies to give you everything.

Leaders are now also informing us that there were no complaints from citizens about the program (unsurprising, given that it was, you know, classified) and that we shouldn't be concerned because it's been going on for at least seven years -- it's nothing new, we're reassured. (Why are you upset that you just found out I've been sleeping with your wife? We've been screwing each other since 2006!)

The generally bipartisan nature of the "nothing to worry about" pronouncements today are quite noteworthy, and while we already knew pretty well how Congress operates, one might wonder why President Obama has been co-opted into such invasions of our civil liberties, apparently by continuing the abuses initiated by his GOP predecessor.

I have a theory about that, which explains why political parties just don't matter in these situations.

Remember that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are mainly bureaucratic organizations, desperate to protect their own turfs and funding. (In "The President's Analyst" the "FBR" and "CEA" were always at each other's throats -- the "real" initials were dubbed out in post-production after actual threats from the government!)

My guess is that as soon as a new president is sworn in -- regardless of political party -- the heads of the various interested agencies march into the Oval Office and present the new head of state with "The Briefing Book of Doom (BBD)."

The BBD would be designed to scare the president out his or her wits by drawing the bleakest, most alarming possible picture of world threats, and emphasizing how any attempt to reign in previous abuses by these agencies could (it is claimed) result in catastrophe ("and by the way, we need much more money, too!")

Few persons are going to have the spine to stand up to such a collective onslaught from the spooks, designed to appeal to emotion rather than reason and logic. It matters not if your affiliation is Republican, Democrat, or Jedi Master.

In this way, the unelected bureaucrats have usurped enormous power, in a manner eerily reminiscent in some ways of the old Soviet Union.

Back to connecting those dots. Even as I'm typing these words, more new revelations are circulating today, about a highly classified program named "PRISM" tying the FBI and NSA directly into major Internet services to gather email, audio, video, photographs, documents, and connection logs. This appears to have also begun under Bush, and grown exponentially since then. Some in Congress have reportedly known about this all along also. PRISM is reportedly not a mass data collection system per se, but rather a means for the government to access specified data as quickly as possible. [Addendum: 5:34 PM - Most or all of the firms described in the PRISM story ("Washington Post" links - see below) are denying involvement.]

Again, such a program has been long suspected, and helps to explain the government's push for extended CALEA access and their increasingly loud demands for easy means to obtain the "plain text" (unencrypted) contents of encrypted Internet data streams and associated services. [Blog Update (June 7, 2013): Inside PRISM: Why the Government Hates Encryption (What PRISM likely is -- and isn't)]

We can also assume that most postal transactions have long been at least tracked.

I'm frequently asked if it's likely that the government is collecting the actual contents of phone calls on a large-scale basis, bringing us back around to our Soviet and American movie spy friends.

As far back as 2006, I speculated that the technology to do this was within reach, but that for practical reasons a "record every call" approach seemed unlikely. Even now, with the massive improvements in tech since then, I still suspect that actual call recording tends to be quite focused, rather than comprehensive, for technical reasons beyond the scope of this posting. In absolute terms though, it may still be quite large.

We also now can begin to understand the depths of the threats and pressures that the government -- via National Security Letters and these various classified programs -- have been asserting against major Internet firms.

Reading between the lines of the cases we already knew about, firms like Google and others have been trying to warn us about this -- the best that they could do given the constraints forced upon them by a secretive government.

I also personally believe that we now can see more clearly the depth of hypocrisy and diversion involved in the government spending so much effort publicly attacking harmless, anonymous, personalized Internet ad systems, while at the same time engaging in such massive, secret, highly personal, and deeply invasive intrusions of their own citizens' lives.

Beyond all this, there's a truly upsetting question. If our own government is willing to go this far at this stage in such a bipartisan manner -- republicans and democrats alike -- what might happen if someday a small nuke or dirty bomb is detonated in a U.S. city? Even if relatively few persons were actually harmed, how long would any of our remaining civil liberties be intact? You know the answer.

I called this posting "The Soviet Surveillance States of America" -- but perhaps not for the reasons you might have suspected. While the old Soviet Union (and unfortunately, increasingly the new Russia) certainly have engaged in evil acts, it would not be truthful to suggest that all of their associated motivations were necessarily actually evil themselves.

Much more dangerous than true evil itself is leaders who honestly feel that they are doing the right thing for their countries and people, and slide down the slippery slope of increasingly intrusive civil liberties decimations in the process. It is in this way that many of history's worst tyrannies were gestated -- pulled into a putrid pit via a chain of ostensibly noble deeds.

The old USSR likely would have made many of the same pro-surveillance arguments that our leaders here are making today, if the technology in focus now had actually existed then.

We've all heard it said that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

It's something to remember, comrades. Something definitely to remember.


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NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily

U.S. intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program

NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program

Posted by Lauren at June 6, 2013 04:40 PM | Permalink
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