NSA: All up in your privacy junk since 1952

NSA: All up in your privacy junk since 1952

Summary: The National Security Agency has been violating your privacy for over 50 years. And you've just suddenly become aware of this now?

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Man, I love a good conspiracy theory, with a nice dollop of government cover-up.

I particularly like it when consumed late in the evening, when my wife goes to bed, and I can sit down in my living room in front of the big screen with a plate of the nastiest-smelling, funky-tasting blue cheese (the more offensive the better, 'cause my wife hates the stuff) and a pile of Triscuits, along with a frosty beer. Alternate with pork rinds, and the occasional Haagen-Dazs.

Nobody's watching, right?

I grab the remote, turn on the History Channel, where along with the aforementioned guilty pleasures, I can tune into Ancient Aliens, or, better yet, America's Book of Secrets.

nsa-truman-1952
(Image: Google)

If you're into wacky tinfoil hat conspiracy stuff, these two shows, both produced by Prometheus Entertainment, are absolute gold.

America's Book of Secrets, especially, is the ultimate in wild speculation conspiracy porn. The show continually asks open-ended questions from the audience, and at the end of each episode, you actually feel your brain cells screaming for help due to the sheer stupidity of it all.

But it's like crack. I continue to watch it.

Every show begins with the narrative, "There are those who believe in the existence of a book. A book that contains the most highly guarded secrets of the United States of America. A book whose very existence is known to a mere select few. But if if such a book exists, what would it contain? Secret <fill in the blank?> secret <something else?> and secret <another thing?>"

Well, the bottom line is there is no "book" of secrets. But there is one gigantic building complex operated by a government agency absolutely filled with them. And it's located on the US Army base of Fort Meade, Maryland. We know this as the headquarters of the National Security Agency, or the NSA.

Read this

PRISM: Here's how the NSA wiretapped the Internet

PRISM: Here's how the NSA wiretapped the Internet

The National Security Agency's "PRISM" program is able to collect, in realtime, intelligence not limited to social networks and email accounts. But the seven tech companies accused of opening 'back doors' to the spy agency could well be proven innocent.

Now, many of you have become recently familiar with the NSA, because you've probably just heard about this ultra-secret electronic surveillance system called PRISM (complete with this way-cool, 1970s retro science-fictioney logo). 

Since 2007, it has apparently been collecting and is capable of analyzing in real time every kind of private user data that you can possibly think of, from all of the biggest companies providing public cloud-based end-user services: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.

This comes on the heels of another story, where apparently the NSA is vacuuming up all sorts of customer and call telemetry from Verizon (only Verizon? O RLY?)

According to UK newspaper The Guardian, which originally broke the story, PRISM monitoring was allegedly installed with the full knowledge of the companies "participating," and the project costs a mere $20 million per year to operate. Oy, what a bargain!

(By the way, by my own and others' estimations, $20 million per year would barely cover three to six months of the storage costs alone of such an endeavor, so I suspect that this is a far more expensive undertaking than we are meant to believe, if it is real. We're talking about an organization that gets all of its funding primarily from "Black Projects," has its own semiconductor manufacturing facilities for making specialized cryptoanalysis chips, and owns and operates more supercomputing equipment than probably any other single entity on this planet.)

In short, PRISM's revelation has made all other big data projects look like child's play.

By the way, I say "allegedly" because all of the companies (listed as "Providers" in the leaked documents, so this could also mean the upstream Tier-1 ISP providing bandwidth to these companies) on record have denied the existence of PRISM or cooperation with the NSA.

And until we hear otherwise from official sources within the US government, we have no idea whether PRISM is some elaborate hoax foisted on The Guardian and The Washington Post, who have provided the smoking gun PowerPoints.

Oh my God, we should be appalled that our privacy is being invaded, right? How can we trust our government ever again?

Puhleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze.

Let's take a step back. No, let's step back over 50 years. To 1952. When the flux capacitor hits 1.21 gigawatts, and the Delorean hits 88 miles per hour... oh, never mind.

In June 1952, President Harry Truman (that would be president number 33, the same guy who authorized the only nuclear weapons releases during wartime) signed a secret order that formed the National Security Agency, which in and of itself was an outgrowth of the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), formed in 1949, which was to coordinate the communications and electronic intelligence activities of all the US military intelligence units.

The formation of the NSA took this a step even further to a national level, and extended its reach beyond the armed forces.

The mission of the NSA, by US law, is limited to monitoring foreign communications, whether it is electronic intelligence (ELINT) or signal intelligence (SIGINT). The CIA, by comparison, mainly acts on human intelligence gathering (HUMINT), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) primarily uses satellite space imaging as their main assets.

Monitoring of domestic communications has traditionally been the purview of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

What is critical to understand here is that until 9/11, these organizations did not share information freely with each other, and the events of that day were a wake-up call for this country's anti-terrorism initiative, because the tragedy almost certainly could have been averted had the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI been working more closely.

So, while the NSA's legal charter limits them to foreign communications, in reality, foreign combatants (terrorist organizations and state-sponsored entities) will have used US-based systems to conduct their operations. The US Patriot Act has made NSA wiretapping on US soil something of a gray area, particularly now that the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI freely exchange information with each other in the interests of national security.

Monitoring telephone and data communications of the agents of hostile entities extends even further from the NSA into a program known as ECHELON, which has been rumored to exist since at least the early 1960s, in the formative years of the Cold War, and is a shared system with the commonwealth nations of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Marty! It's your kids!

One would think that you would need to monitor a huge number of data transmission endpoints, but in reality, there are only a few large fiber optic communications hubs where the balance of internet traffic flows.

One such site, known as Room 641A, which apparently is located in the SBC Communications building in San Francisco, has monitoring equipment installed by the NSA in it, and is essentially a gigantic wiretap on a huge portion of internet communication flowing into and out of the United States.

Room 641A apparently became active in 2003, and its existence was revealed by former AT&T technician Mark Klein as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against AT&T in 2006.

So to say that the NSA harvests and analyzes a lot of the personal communications and data of US citizens is shocking is a lot like being surprised that McDonald's buys millions of pounds of potatoes every year to make French Fries. Or: Oh my God, Starbucks serves coffee? William Shatner wears a toupee? The pope is catholic? You get the idea.

 Look, folks. The NSA is and always has been in the wiretapping business, and because of 9/11, business is a boomin'. The charter of the NSA since its inception has never changed, and certainly what it presumably does with PRISM is no different than what it has done with ECHELON and any other systems that preceded it and have come since.

NSA started with radio transmissions and analogue telephone signals, and as the world went digital, it wiretapped the internet. PRISM simply extends that wiretapping to not just the traffic moving across the "pipes," but now, presumably, directly into the databases of the providers hosting the most widely-used applications and services in the cloud.

So, what are we to think of all of this? Well, as my colleague David Gewirtz has noted, the national security of the United States is a paradox. The world since 9/11 has become much more complex, and the theater of war itself is also more complicated than it used to be.

And as Zack Whittaker has so eloquently told this morning, Barack Obama's greatest legacy will almost certainly be that he will be remembered as the president to shift the modern theater of war from being one centered around the shedding of blood to having superiority of bytes.

While things such as wiretapping and electronically harvesting the data (in real time) of our own citizens, as well as using drone reconnaissance and strike aircraft and SEAL teams to act quickly and decisively on that intelligence, is certainly crossing a line, which at times may infringe on our civil liberties, it is ultimately more desirable than sending soldiers into harm's way, having less precise information to work with, and suffering hundreds or perhaps thousands of American and civilian casualties in a protracted operation.

Almost certainly, the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad in 2011 was as a result of collecting information from PRISM, ECHELON, and systems like them. The drones and NRO satellites, which confirmed the existence of the compound, must have used information compiled from these sources, and, ultimately, SEAL Team Six acted upon that information directly.

If these technologies were not available, would we have got "Geronimo" on Zero Dark Thirty? It's difficult to say. But I, for one, am happier and will sleep better at night knowing that the NSA and our executive branch have these tools at their disposal.

Would the existence of a PRISM-like system at the NSA make you feel like your personal liberties have been violated and make you trust your government even less, or would it give you a greater sense of protection? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Cloud, Government US, Mobility, Networking, Security

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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Talkback

49 comments
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  • Its no secret that they will do it

    But you are just too small fish for them to care! I have discussed my evil schemes with people over Skype, msn, facebook, etc. Yet I don't really care, because as evil as I like to think of myself as, my evil schemes aren't even worth a secret agent's time!
    the_tyrant
    • Except that you become a bigger fish when you start engaging

      in unapproved activities. Oh, like your phone number calling a phone number of a conservative organization. How do you like your IRS audit, Mr. Citizen?
      baggins_z
      • If it was so fantastic, why was it a secret?

        Why did it take a foreign-owned newspaper, The Guardian, to tell the American people that they were being eaves-dropped upon?

        Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said that the leak of this information to The Guardian is "gut-wrenching". Why? Because the American people now know? And now they may not want this eaves-dropping?

        Skype used to be a way to avoid being eaves-dropped upon, because of its encryption. But not any more. Skype used to be a Norwegian company. Then Microsoft bought it and brought it under American control, and under the watch of the NSA. I always wondered whether Microsoft received some government encouragement (of some sort) to buy Skype. But who knows. That's just another conspiracy theory.

        Anyway, the fact that the American people were not told about the NSA eavesdropping shows that the activity was not in their best interests.
        Vbitrate
  • Let me get this straight

    People didn't blink an eye when the Patriot Act was approved during the W. Bush Presidency, but now that there is an African American in office this is news everywhere? Hmmmm...
    D.J. 43
    • I disagree

      The patriot act was very controversial at the time but as Rom says "Never let a good emergency go to waste"
      zmudd
    • re:

      Correct. Just like people didn't get upset while Bush era policies were creating the biggest economic mess since the great depression, but now they're upset that his successor hasn't been able to clean up that mess instantly even though the members of Bush's party are unanimously opposed to and attempt to block everything he tries to do.
      Sir Name
      • Huh?

        You should really learn some macroeconomic theory from someone other than Krugman and his ilk.

        The main cause of the problem (aside from people making $30k/yr believing they could afford a $250k house) was that the writers of the debt instruments were smarter than then ratings agencies, so they basically hid their shenanigans. The check and balance was in place, but the execution was off.

        Plus, the main reason these financial institutions were engaging in these highly risky instruments was that they knew there was essentially zero risk, as the fed would inevitable bail them out (the whole "too big to fail" concept). If that fallback weren't in place, these fin orgs wouldn't have been engaging in such highly-leveraged positions, and the whole catastrophe could have been avoided.
        IndifferentDisdain
      • Probably because Bush era policies didn't.

        The mess started when idiot Americans put veto proof Democrat majorities in the House and Senate in 2006.
        baggins_z
        • They weren't veto-proof

          If I remember rightly, the very last time any party had a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress was 1975-1979 (and I'm not certain it happened then).

          Veto overrides are rare and are almost never party line votes.
          John L. Ries
    • Wrong. People pitched a royal fit.

      A lot of people.
      baggins_z
    • Obviously!

      Now I see it! At last I understand. The NSA's ongoing mission to spy on everybody is only worrisome to racists & bigots. You've certainly opened my eyes. Thanks a bunch.
      SlimSam
    • Too bad you got it all wrong. Nice to see you blame the people for this

      instead of the governemnet, though. So you're saying that because the president is African American, he should be allowed to continue questionable policies?

      Thing is, if you look back, GWB was critisized for things like this, too.
      William Farrel
  • Sleep Better?

    The first eight and a half years of my career was spent as an Air Force Information Systems Officer. My last assignment was on the development team for the Nuclear Planning System at The Pentagon from 1985-88.

    Because of my clearance, I got to visit several places that most people never get to go, including the NSA. At least back then, the NSA did not spy on Americans in the US, but that is a matter of semantics. We would spy on the UK, the UK would spy on us and we would trade intel.

    You say you sleep better knowing the government has these tools. For over a quarter century, I've not slept well because I learned about how our government behind the scenes.

    Because of my involvement with a radio show, I've been able to spend time with the man that was the lead physicist for the Navy (before my time at The Pentagon). Perhaps I was fortunate to not learn more than I did while I was on active duty.

    While neither of us are privy to today's secrets, our dated knowledge of science and technology is still mind blowing to the average American.

    Sleep well for you do not know what you do not know.
    jrr@...
    • Urban myths and my '15 year rule of thumb' theory

      I've always had a working theory on technology available to some government employees and tech their citizens had access to. I always assumed that 'someone' in government had access to technology that would not become generally available to the public until 15 or so years had passed. (Whether that technology was available to military personnel or whomever)

      To put that theory into perspective, the first IBM PC was introduced around 1981 (with green phosphor monochrome monitors and large floppy drives) Contrast that first PC with, oh say, the Commodore Amiga computers around 1995 with sophisticated real time video overlay capabilities. (Babylon 5 and SeaQuest DSV were made possible thru Amiga based technology of that era)

      So while 'we' were playing with IBM PCs, someone had technology akin to the Amiga of 1995 working in the government.

      I believe, jrr@, that everyone has heard an urban myth (or two) regarding advanced technology. I'm no exception.

      My example, in retrospect, is an extension of the type of electronic surveillance that in now known to exist that allows listing to conversations - at a distance - by use of lasers. This type of technology has even been demonstrated in a Tom Clancy based movie, A Clear and Present Danger.

      The urban myth passed down to me from my father (who was told by someone) involved the ability to listen to conversations inside Cheyenne mountain's NORAD facilities from outside the mountain using some type of technology that was never disclosed. I first heard about this 'urban myth' during the early 80's.

      So yes, I do sleep at night with the full knowledge that I'm a technological 'Neanderthal' compared to some persons alive today.
      kenosha77a
  • ACLU

    This outrage only gets worse. Here is a list by the ACLU of the actions against our rights

    http://www.aclu.org/spy-files
    HateBothParties
  • Our best interests?

    So you sleep well at night after learning the government was and is spying on you every hour of every day. Without Due Process, without Probable Cause that you had even done something wrong and without a Warrant.

    Yes, our government would never, ever abuse their power, right? The magical beings who run our government are wise and noble and only have our best interests at heart! They never suffer from petty concerns such as corruption, ambition or *gasp* incompetence!

    Jason, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale. Interested?

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” - Benjamin Franklin, 1755
    MajorlyCool
    • Freedom

      I agree with Majorly. You can alredy see how the IRS has missed used information so what makes you think that these other organizations would do so as well. Why do you choose to turn over your freedoms?
      brcent@...
  • The trouble started...

    ...when people forgot the reason behind the Bill of Rights. No, privacy isn't just so you can cheat on your wife and get away with it. Each of the Bills was carefully crafted to make it possible to overthrow the government. They didn't put Freedom of Religion in there so you could be a dissenter. No, the Revolution was organized and information passed through the pulpit. It's darn hard to have militia practice schedules read at church if your minister works for the government. Likewise, "privacy" is so revolutionaries could pass messages about without the whole lot being arrested. Well watched devotees of the History Channel may remember the Committees of Correspondence, something not taught in public high school for quite a while. Now why would they add such a thing to our documents? Oh, I dunno, perhaps they were worried that one day a despotic government would go too far and something drastic would need to be done? Naahhh.. Doesn't matter anyway, we're all sheep.
    Tony Burzio
  • Ever hear of the Constitution?

    It's this 200+ year old document that provides for a govenment to be overseen by its citizens.

    And that searches and seizures of personal effects and papers (to include conversations, live or over some other transmission media) without a warrant will not be conducted?

    Or that people have the right to not incriminate themselves?

    Or that rights are granted to the Federal government, or the states, by the people, and not by the government itself? And that people reserve all other rights to themselves?
    Dr_Zinj
  • Can You Say WIMEA

    "Under the provisions of WIMEA, I must inform you that this communication may be monitored.... Please proceed with your call." - Standard response for all government PHONCONs in the late 1970's. No surprises here. :)
    Jeff Tyler