24 June 2013

A Couple of Notes on Edward Snowden

The revelations by the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden did not surprise me. In fact, I was surprised that people were shocked to find out that all our communications were being monitored.

Let me say it without moving my lips: This has always been the case and it will always be the case.

This is nothing new. Have you heard of the ECHELON system?
ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA Security Agreement (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, referred to by a number of abbreviations, including AUSCANNZUKUS and Five Eyes). It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications. [my emphasis]
Read the last sentence one more time.

But during the last decade, most of the communication traffic was moved from satellites to fiber optics. So the first thing the Cheney Administration did after 9/11 was to design a program (with the Orwellian name Total Information Awareness or TIA) to gather data from telephone communications, email, social media, credit card receipts and all online transactions without warrants. Admiral Poindexter, the formerly convicted felon of the Iran-Contra scandal, was the point man for this brilliant idea.

When TIA was greeted with dismay, the Cheney Administration changed tack and had the NSA approach the Telcos in 2001 to get direct and secret access to the Internet backbone. This is known as the "NSA Warrantless Surveillance Program" and it was exposed by James Rosen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times in December 2005 (incidentally, they filed the story a year before but Bill Keller, the Editor of the liberal NY Times decided to sit on it until after the 2004 presidential elections).

Thanks to that story, we learned that there was a Room 641A in the AT&T floors of the SBC Communications Building in San Francisco and beam splitters installed in fiber optics trunks pushed all of Internet traffic through the computers in that room.

In other words, they had access to everything. But when the story broke, the NSA claimed that it was not listening in on any conversation between two American citizens. They had access but refrained from using it. And they never listened in on innocent parties. Some people might be naive enough to believe these assurances but they were not quite true. For instance, some whistle-blower revealed that NSA analysts were listening regular conversations between military personnel and their families:
Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News. 
But American exceptionalism being what it is, people disregarded such stories and believed that the NSA folks would never, ever listen in on their fellow citizens.

Once the warrantless surveillance became public, the Cheney Administration pushed a new legislation through Congress (a bi-partisan effort) which exonerated the Telcos, retroactively justified the warrantless surveillance practice and gave the NSA the power to acquire large scale warrants from the secret FISA Court to monitor unspecified communications between unspecified parties.

Then they continued to record and data mine everything. In fact the job got so big that they had to build a two billion dollar new facility in Utah just for these activities. But even that was not enough, they enlisted private contractors. And large private security companies began taking over the spying business.
Seventy percent of America’s intelligence budget now flows to private contractors. Going by this year’s estimated budget of about $80 billion, that makes private intelligence a $56 billion-a-year industry.
Enter Edward Snowden. He was a contractor working for the giant defense and security firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

He revealed that through a program called PRISM the NSA had access to the metadata of all telephone conversations.  Moreover, they were monitoring (along with their British counterpart GCHQ) all of Internet traffic. They also had direct access points to Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft servers. Of course these companies denied the existence of such access but they acknowledge that they complied with requests of information from the NSA.

Of course, this is a meaningless denial since the NSA warrants are very broad, the rules and procedures are secret and these companies cannot discuss even the extent or nature of NSA requests.

I am pretty sure they have full blown TIA. Snowden stated that they only have access to metadata of telephone and email communications (where, when, who type of information) but I suspect he was being cautious not to reveal all he knows at once. With the kind of access described in this Power Point presentation, I don't see how they would just limit themselves to metadata.

In fact, there was a recent example of the kind of access we are talking about. If you remember, the FBI sort of acknowledged that they had access to previous phone conversations between Boston marathon bomber Tsarnaev and his wife. Since they were not persons of interests at the time, it meant that they could go back and find past communications.

Having said all that and perhaps weaken your trust in the inherent goodness and decency of the national security state, I want to highlight a couple of intriguing points about Snowden.

His timing coincided with the US visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. One of the most important topic on Obama's agenda was the Chinese hacking. He even said that he had blunt talks with Xi. Within days, Snowden revealed (from Hong Kong where he was holed up) that the US government routinely engaged in similar hacking activities.
Within hours of news breaking that the US had filed charges against Snowden, the South China Morning Post reported that the whistleblower had handed over a series of documents to the paper detailing how the US had targeted Chinese phone companies as part of a widespread attempt to get its hands on a mass of data.
Clearly, this is a major embarrassment for the US government whose motto is "Do As We Say Not As We Do."
 All over the country, a magic switch went on. Thousands of writers and editors who hadn’t dared touch the Snowden story on Tuesday couldn’t get enough of it on Wednesday.
“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News. 
China Daily quoted a Chinese expert on American affairs saying, “For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government.”      
Another intriguing point is the incomplete extradition request sent to Hong Kong authorities. The people who put together dossiers like these do not make mistakes. My guess is that the State Department was fearful of further revelations in case he was blocked in Hong Kong and they had tp go through a lengthy extradition process. No one knows for sure how many secret files Snowden took from the NSA computers (he has been travelling with four laptops) and the way he intervened in the Obama Xi debate must have given them pause.

I never understood why he went to Hong Kong until he gave this important trump card to China. If it was done on purpose this was an astute move.

Once he left Hong Kong, Snowden decided to fly out to Moscow, en route to Ecuador. When the US asked Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country they flatly refused that request. Russia is about one of the few countries in the world to be able to thumb their noses to the US in such a situation. Another good move on Snowden's part.

As for his asylum request to Ecuador, the most significant part of it is the fact that it was arranged by Wikileaks. The message this conveys is that his secrets could be shared with the organization and even if he is intercepted and "rendered" back home, the genie will be let out of the bottle.

These are all excellent moves and shows wit and knowledge on the part of Ed Snowden.

If he has the goods, that is documents proving the extraordinary overreach of the NSA and the US intelligence community, he might one day be known as the guy who brought the National Security State to its knees.

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