NSA: All up in your privacy junk since 1952

The National Security Agency has been violating your privacy for over 50 years. And you've just suddenly become aware of this now?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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.

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?


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.

Editorial standards