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Posts Tagged ‘Privacy

Fusing Surveillance Programs

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As revelations about the NSA’s spying programs continue to surface America’s surveillance state continues to grow from local and state nodes. While a series of leaks by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposed secret NSA programs that intercepted phone records, emails, voice over IP and other forms of electronic communications used by Americans, the NSA is just one of dozens of intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. The surveillance state has an uncanny way of diffusing itself through non-federal channels.

After revelations by the 9/11 Commission that intelligence agencies at different levels were not “connecting the dots by sharing terrorism clues they had in their possession”, the Department of Homeland Security devised a new system to share intelligence between agencies. Fusion Centers were created to allow for the proper transmission of relevant terrorist and criminal information between all levels of intelligence and law enforcement. In effect, intelligence gathered on terrorists and criminals would be shared at the local, state and federal level. What feeds the Fusion Centers is a continual flow of raw information provided by local police departments, state police departments, private security firms and private sector business partners. Raw information includes everything from suspects license plate numbers, cell phone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers and video surveillance footage. The intelligence provided by all entities – local, state, federal and private – is then amalgamated and integrated into a vast database for analysis. According to a report by the US subcommittee last October titled “Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers”, 77 fusion centers were said to have been built between 2003 and 2007. That same report excoriated fusion centers citing financial waste, production of “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence” and severe lack of oversight that compromised constitutionally protected rights of American citizens.

If you flip to the back of yesterday’s Times, on page A-15 you will find an article discussing a lawsuit being brought against John J. Towery, a criminal intelligence analyst who worked with the Washington State Fusion Center to amass dossiers on anti-war protesters before funneling them into a domestic terrorism watchlist. Brendan Maslauskas Dunn, one of the plaintiffs in the case described to the Times in a previous piece how Towery worked undercover to infiltrate activist groups:“John Towery had an intimate knowledge of our personal lives, our relationships, our political beliefs, even actions we were planning…People Were followed. They were routinely harassed, detained and arrested.”

Another suit brought against the Boston Police Department and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) which serves as Massachusetts fusion center by the ACLU reveals that surveillance and intelligence officers have been gathering extensive information on peaceful protesters and political activists in the Boston area. Electronic records known as “intelligence reports” have been on file at BRIC since 2007. Despite department guidelines that require all intelligence that does not pertain to criminal activity to be destroyed in 90 days, BRIC maintained its files on non-criminals for as long as five years. Information on protesters and their activities is being collected by a consortium of local, state and federal officers. While no connection between the protest groups activities and criminal or terrorist conduct has been demonstrated intelligence amasses on dissenters. According to the ACLU report Policing Dissent: “the BRIC files list the non-violent actions of peace groups and activists under the heading “Criminal Act”, with labels such as “Extremists”, “Civil Disturbance” and “Home-Sec Domestic” in reports that track groups and people not engaged in crime but merely exercising their constitutional right to peaceful dissent.”

The problem with fusion centers and the NSA spying programs brought to light over the past several weeks is not that they try to intercept terrorist plots but that the sweeping authority they have been given at the local, state, and federal level to carry out blanket surveillance they ensnare citizens who have not been suspected of any wrong doing. Without vigilant oversight these centers are operating more and more as domestic surveillance entities with vast powers to track political dissidence. Although the NSA spying programs and Fusion Centers have been defended by surveillance state apologists as important tools in preventing terrorist attacks evidence abounds that these tools are being used against the people they are purportedly supposed to protect. Lynn Plante, Brendan Dunn and Jeffrey Berryhill can all attest to this.

Criminalizing assembly, labeling protesters as “domestic terrorists”, recording Americans phone calls and reading their emails, compiling data silos to detect aberrant behavior and implementing programs that require employees to monitor one another, silencing whistle blowers and prosecuting them under the Espionage Act are all part and parcel of a wayward surveillance system that knows no boundaries. The leaks revealing the extent to which the NSA monitors our activities cannot be viewed in isolation. As the NSA intercepts and aggregates staggering amounts of personal information, local authorities, state police, security firms and private sector partners work independently towards the same end. Secret surveillance programs are designed to assure that information flows in one direction only, away from those subjected to monitoring and towards the intelligence agencies, shady entities that are at once governmental and private. Ruling classes have understood the power of knowledge at least since Francis Bacon. With an endless array of surveillance technologies and spy programs at its disposal the surveillance state, the political and corporate class it protects will wield tremendous powers over individuals it has come to know everything about. When a government can extract your thoughts and monitor you behavior through surveillance, consolidate that information through databasing to establish a data profile that defines who you are in the eyes of national security and then disseminate information about you throughout an integrated network of authorities without you knowing, it’s only a matter of time before you think, say or post the wrong thing warranting closer scrutiny. And by then it’s too late because the algorithms have already passed their verdict. The file is opened and the investigation begins with your June 26, 2013 Google search for “Terrorism”.

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Written by yourinquirerprofoundly

June 25, 2013 at 10:58 pm

NSA’s PRISM Program Wants to Know Your Thoughts

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The NSA, the world’s largest intelligence agency and a central part of the United States military apparatus has received access to droves of civilian communications through its recently revealed PRISM program. Like many other top secret domestic surveillance programs, including Stellar Wind, and the FBI led Project Carnivore (now referred to as the Digital Collection System) that aim to vacuum up electronic data on people in the US, PRISM reveals itself as another powerful tool in the governments rapidly growing surveillance arsenal.

The NSA’s PRISM program functions as a “back door” through which the US government can directly access massive reserves of private data from partnership companies. The companies the NSA has partnered with to form PRISM are Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Paltalk, Youtube, AOL and just this past year Apple. These nine companies which make up the bulk of email, video, search engines, online communications in general, provide the US government with direct access to their servers. In other words the NSA can directly obtain information stored on the companies servers about anyone and conduct real-time data collection on targeted users. According to the Obama Administration with its radical interpretation of powers enumerated in the FISA Amendment this kind of probing is limited and legal. But a quick look at what the FISA Act of 1978 originally set out to accomplish shows how far we have drifted after two administrations from the legal confines of carrying out surveillance and how the criteria for selecting those targets has changed.

Senate Committee findings in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal where federal resources were discovered to have been used by the Nixon administration to spy on political activist groups prompted lawmakers to create judicial and congressional oversight of government surveillance activities while still providing intelligence agencies the secrecy needed to conduct investigations on “foreign powers” and Americans communicating with them. The idea was to strike a balance between intelligence agencies’ needs to intercept communications pertaining to plots to sabotage and attack the United States and US citizens’ constitutional rights to live free from unwarranted searches and seizures. For that reason Congress passed the FISA Act satisfying national security needs to undermine and intercept foreign plots while preserving civil liberties, in particular the right of US citizen to not have their communications eavesdropped on without a court warrant. For thirty years federal investigators would have to show probable cause to a FISA court (a special court of judges responsible for overseeing federal agents requests for surveillance warrants) that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Intelligence agencies were emboldened by this law to carry out surveillance on actors subversive to US national security. Furthermore the FISA courts posed virtually no obstacle to intelligence agents seeking to obtain warrants. From the period 1979-2006 a total of 22,990 applications for warrants were made to the Court of which 22,985 were approved. In sum, FISA became primary tool for investigators to combat foreign threats and terrorism. The 2001 Patriot Act, Protect America Act of 2007 and the reviled FISA Amendments Act of 2008 changed all of this by vastly expanding the governments powers to conduct surveillance and increase the number of targets it could surveil. Today these are the legal justifications the Obama Administration is using to carry out its massive dragnet.

Last December’s debate about the renewal of the FISA Amendment ACT shed further light on the Administration’s expanding powers.Tthe ACLU published a policy paper that highlighted the constitutional concerns the Act raised. The NSA’s PRISM program makes the following eight concerns a concrete reality.

1. The law gives the government sweeping surveillance power without requiring it to identify the targets of its surveillance.
2. The law allows the government to intercept U.S. citizens’ and residents’ international telephone and email communications without having to identify the facilities, phone lines, email addresses, or locations to be monitored.
3. The law allows the government to conduct intrusive surveillance without meaningful judicial oversight.
4. The law places no meaningful limits on the government’s retention and dissemination of information relating to U.S. citizens and residents.
5. Nothing in the law prevents the government from compiling huge databases of foreign intelligence information and searching those databases later for information about U.S. citizens and residents.
6. The law does not limit government surveillance to communications relating to terrorism.
7. The law gives the government access to some communications that are purely domestic.
8. The law immunizes the telecoms that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

So what are the implications of the US government having direct access to users data from the largest internet companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo? While there are many three implications of the PRISM several things immediately stand out.

First and foremost it means that Americans who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism and who pose no threat to national security are having their communications records stored for digital analysis and where deemed necessary for further analysis by intelligence specialists. The Wall Street Journal reported as far back as 2008 that the NSA receives “transactional data” from a variety of agencies and private companies so it can monitor ‘huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records.” When suspicious transaction patterns are detected by the NSA’s sophisticated dragnet software leads are spit out to counter terrorism agencies for investigation.

Second the broad sweeping powers of PRISM assure us that the communications of millions of individuals are being intercepted by the United States without warrants, in total secrecy and save the Obama Administration’s radical interpretation of executive authority so similar to that of his predecessor, in violation of the Constitution.

Third the cooperation of private companies with the NSA blurs any line that distinguishes private telecommunications and internet corporations as separate from the growing surveillance state. From Google to Apple, the nine companies participating in the NSA’s PRISM are complicit in providing services for and carrying out the functions of the the United State’s surveillance apparatus.

Fourth that a military/intelligence institution has become so heavily involved in intercepting and analyzing the private communications of individuals across digital networks suggests nothing but the militarization of communications infrastructure.

Finally in parsing through the private communications of millions of individuals who have no connection to terrorism and who are not suspected of having committed a crime the government is keeping record and analyzing the conversations of its citizenry. In this way it comes to know not only what kinds of terrorists plots are brewing but what it’s citizenry is talking about, thinking. This begs the question, why would a government want to know the thoughts of the governed and why would it want to hide the fact that it monitors their communications?

Written by yourinquirerprofoundly

June 7, 2013 at 9:16 pm

FISA Amendments Act Renewed Reifies Surveillance State

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Congress reapproved the controversial 2008 FISA Amendments Act extending the State’s mandate to use broad sweeping powers for domestic surveillance, the complete opposite effect for which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was initially signed into law in 1978. Senate Committee findings in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal where federal resources were discovered to have been used by the Nixon administration to spy on political activist groups prompted lawmakers to create judicial and congressional oversight of government surveillance activities while still providing intelligence agencies the secrecy needed to conduct investigations on “foreign powers” and Americans communicating with them. The idea was to strike a balance between intelligence agencies’ needs to intercept communications pertaining to plots to sabotage and attack the United States and US citizens’ constitutional rights to live free from unwarranted searches and seizures. For that reason Congress passed the FISA Act satisfying national security needs to undermine and intercept foreign plots while preserving civil liberties, in particular the right of US citizen to not have their communications eavesdropped on without a court warrant. For thirty years federal investigators would have to show probable cause to a FISA court (a special court of judges responsible for overseeing federal agents requests for surveillance warrants) that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Intelligence agencies were emboldened by this law to carry out surveillance on actors subversive to US national security. Furthermore the FISA courts posed virtually no obstacle to intelligence agents seeking to obtain warrants. From the period 1979-2006 a total of 22,990 applications for warrants were made to the Court of which 22,985 were approved. In sum, FISA became primary tool for investigators to combat foreign threats and terrorism.

The 2001 Patriot Act, Protect America Act of 2007 and the reviled FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the one then Senator Obama vowed to filibuster on the grounds that “any bill” immunizing the telecommunications companies involved in assisting Bush/Cheney’s warrantless wiretapping program were responsible for having violated the constitution. Months after promising to block the bill that would extend state spying powers, Obama not only failed to filibuster the bill as sworn, but actually voted against a filibuster proposal by other senators. According to a position paper published by the ACLU, the purpose of the FISA Amendments Act “is to give the government nearly unfettered access to Americans’ international communications.” In addition the paper highlights eight other constitutional concerns the Act in question brings up:

1. The law gives the government sweeping surveillance power without requiring it to identify the targets of its surveillance.
2. The law allows the government to intercept U.S. citizens’ and residents’ international telephone and email communications without having to identify the facilities, phone lines, email addresses, or locations to be monitored.
3. The law allows the government to conduct intrusive surveillance without meaningful judicial oversight.
4. The law places no meaningful limits on the government’s retention and dissemination of information relating to U.S. citizens and residents.
5. Nothing in the law prevents the government from compiling huge databases of foreign intelligence information and searching those databases later for information about U.S. citizens and residents.
6. The law does not limit government surveillance to communications relating to terrorism.
7. The law gives the government access to some communications that are purely domestic.
8. The law immunizes the telecoms that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

On Friday, the Senate debated the renewal of the Act once considered odious by Democrats, that is the Act that was at the center of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program initiated by Bush, the same Act Democrats rallied against in the name of protecting Americans from secret government and Big Brother. How the tides have changed with a Democrat in office.

Despite proposals from several Senate Democrats – Jeff Merkely, Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Rand Paul to attach three amendments providing minimal oversight of government surveillance activities the Senate voted against adding any civil liberties protections. The amendments proposed could not have been more modest. The first would simply require the NSA to provide lawmakers with an estimate of how many US citizens communications had been intercepted since the wiretapping programs conception. The second would prohibit the NSA from eavesdropping on US citizens on American soil without a warrant. And the third would compel the FISA courts to publicly release secret judicial rulings to demonstrate how the scope of the spying law is interpreted. All three amendments were shot down in the Senate and the House. Obama is expected to sign into law the Act that extends for five years the government’s authoritarian powers to spy on US citizens.

Supporters of the renewed FISA Amendments Act like Diane Feinstein who led the charge against Merkely, Wyden and Paul argue that the proposed amendments would hamper the government’s ability to utilize intelligence-gathering tools critical to maintaining national security and stopping terrorists. John Ashcroft and Dick Cheney made a virtually identical argument in defense of the 2001 PATRIOT Act. When lawmakers raised objections to the lack of oversights and vast powers the PATRIOT Act bestowed the government Ashcroft railed against them, accusing anyone who opposed the Act of being in league with the terrorists or not being sensitive to threat of terrorism. This was the false dichotomy propagated throughout the Bush years to paint civil liberties advocates as “un-American”, “unpatriotic” terrorist sympathizers. Apparently summoning that dichotomy to sideline opponents of domestic surveillance is still in vogue among the militaristic fans of unchecked governmental authority. Speaking against the proposed amendments Feinstein invoked the Democrat’s pretended enemy Cheney in a diatribe: one can only support the proposed amendments if “you believe that no one is going to attack us”. In other words, any lawmaker advocating oversight and transparency does not take terrorism seriously and may be responsible for causing “another 9/11”.

At the alleged height of “divided government” Democrats and Republicans are more unified than ever in their mission to expand the reach of the surveillance state. With over 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other electronic communications being intercepted by the NSA daily there’s no telling what kind of information or how much information is being kept on law abiding citizens. The NSA’s refusal to provide lawmakers with even a rough estimate of how many people there are who have been ensnared in intelligence dragnet operations is an ominous sign of the sprawling reach of the government’s surveillance program. Last week’s revelation that Occupy protesters were heavily surveilled by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force is an indicator of how laws like the FISA Amendments Act are being abused to gather intelligence on domestic targets. Other cases, like that of activist Leah Lynn-Plante who was remanded to a federal prison for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigation about the Northwest activists, a group identified by intelligence agencies as “anarchists”, show how “tools to combat terrorism” are being turned on the citizens who they purportedly protect. Last Friday’s debate about extending the government’s mandate to amass intelligence through extensive spying operations is a glaring example of how Democrats and Republicans have coalesced around the idea of normalizing a massive surveillance state. The Obama administration has entrenched the overarching reach of government Democrats once faked to passionately resist. The tentacles of distrust are growing and they are here to strangle anything that counters the awesome powers of the state.

Written by yourinquirerprofoundly

December 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm

How Shady Does An Industry Have to Be to Own Your Shadow?

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Remember when you owned your shadow? If you were born in the digital age you don’t. That’s because your data shadow, the digital dossier that makes up your aggregated electronic existence in the information age is the property of data collection agencies that profit off the distribution and resale of you in raw data form. In 1965 the Bureau of the Budget proposed building a single national data center to store electronic records of every US citizens personal information including, but not limited to, social security numbers, tax records, proof of citizenship and criminal records. The proposal was scrapped after concerns over privacy invasion spurred public outrage.

Flash forward to 2012. Enter Facebook, Amazon, Pay Pal, Experian Credit Reports, and Viagra spam campaigns. How did these companies become immensely wealthy overnight? And why does an image of Atlas Shrugged’s book cover appear in the ad space of your inbox and flash on your computer screen as a pop-up? Does this have anything to do with your attendance at a Paul Ryan fundraiser? or are web marketers promoting rational egoism again?

What’s happened is companies like the aforementioned have become giants in the marketplace with the support of sophisticated data collecting technologies. Private databases sell personal information about your transaction history, physical location, spending and web browsing habits and virtually any other kind of information about you that can be stored electronically used to anticipate what kinds of goods and services you are likely to purchase. Many feel they cannot negotiate modernity without continuously disclosing personal information. This fact has habituated Americans to radically diminished expectations for ownership of their personal information. This diminished expectation is further exacerbated by the abundance of incentives you are given to reveal information about yourself to a variety of demanders providing them with data in exchange for an equally great variety of discounts and shopping rewards. Yet this tradeoff is rarely examined critically. The burgeoning personal data industry demonstrates the lack of resistance these agencies face when collecting information about where you are, how you behave and what you are likely to consume. Yet widespread distrust of these business practices does not mirror the national suspicion that arose after the government proposed to create a single database over fifty years ago. Have we deluded ourselves into thinking that privately owned databases do not pose the same privacy concerns as a federal data center would? Are the carrots you receive for the data shadow you leave worth your potential loss of agency when that data is used against you?

The reality is data collecting, warehousing, mining and selling goes beyond marketing, convenient shopping and sweet deals. Insidious applications of this technology now surround us. No reward points can assuage the fact that every transaction we make is recorded, databased and sold to an interested third-party without our being informed. What good are savings reaped from gas rewards cards if every time your EZ-Pass is scanned that information is sold to auto insurance companies eager to take off that low mileage discount upon policy renewal and just when you thought you had devised the perfect strategy to cut back on commuting expenses. Maybe you accept the tracking of your movement on the grounds that you travel on public transportation roots. Do you extend the same indifference to the monitoring of all electronic communication?

In 2006 both AT&T and Verizon agreed to share phone call records of all their subscribers with the NSA’s program Stellar Wind. Subsequently communication interceptors have been installed at dozens of hubs across the country allowing for the effective aggregation of all phone calls, email and text transmissions that travel via fiber optic cables. In other words, people like Adrienne Klein an NSA voice interceptor at Fort Meade Georgia, do actually listen to phone calls from numbers that have been flagged by dragnet programs for showing “suspicious patterns of use” and those suspicious patterns can be tripped by Ramadan Shallah or someone as innocuous as Molly Shannon. It could also be the case that you are willing to relinquish former protections that prohibited the recording of your conversations, written and spoken for the sake of maintaining national security. So, how would you feel if your affair was disclosed to your significant other after a private investigator requested your driving record from Microdesign’s Electronic Toll Collection database?  Every time you drive through a toll booth a license plate scanner tracks your movements, databases them and sells them to interested marketing companies, government agencies and snoops for hire.

These examples, although few, sufficiently illuminate a shady industry that has serious implications on how we live in a society that monitors our transactions, movements, and conversations. The irony is that after rejecting plans to build a national data base we have witnessed the emergence of the database nation comprised of thousands of data agencies owned by both private companies and government. The superabundance of material rewards has conditioned Americans to disclose details that make up their lives to any party that offers a coupon for anything. Worse, laws have been passed without the slightest debate that has legalized governmental monitoring of nearly all of our actions as long as that monitoring is of “data patterns, not people”.

In the half century since the nation spoke out against building a national database private interests buttressed by favorable legislation have constructed a panopticon, imprisoning your electronic shadow in a variety of different databases with different uses for your personal information. Whether a marketing company is directing a product to you, a credit bureau is tracking your payments, or a surveillance camera is recording your behavior, the reality is that multiple entities have a claim on your aggregated electronic existence. If you consider how inextricably linked you are to the communication networks that span the globe you may realize that your data shadow is an extension of your personhood, a digital self that you that you don’t own. If not owning your shadow is not alarming you have succeeded in objectifying yourself as raw data for the processing.

-your inquirer profoundly