NSA Spying and more — Global Issues

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  • by Anup Shah
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At the start of June 2013, a large number of documents detailing surveillance by intelligence agencies such as the US’s NSA and UK’s GCHQ started to be revealed, based on information supplied by NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden.

These leaks revealed a massive surveillance program that included interception of email and other Internet communications and phone call tapping. Some of it appears illegal, while other revelations show the US spying on friendly nations during various international summits.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of furor. While some countries are no doubt using this to win some diplomatic points, there has been increased tensions between the US and other regions around the world.

Much of the US surveillance programs came from the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001. Concerns about a crackdown on civil rights in the wake of the so-called war on terror have been expressed for a long time, and these revelations seem to be confirming some of those fears.

Given the widespread collection of information, apparently from central servers of major Internet companies and from other core servers that form part of the Internet backbone, activities of millions (if not billions) of citizens have been caught up in a dragnet style surveillance problem called PRISM, even when the communication has nothing to do with terrorism.

What impacts would such secretive mass surveillance have on democracy?

On this page:

  1. Secrecy; US Congress unaware of mass NSA surveillance program
  2. If you’ve got nothing to hide…
  3. Access to vasts amount of user data from Internet Giants
  4. Internet Governance
  5. Americans and citizens of other countries
  6. Spying on friendly countries and international institutions
  7. US mainstream media focus on Edward Snowden
  8. Privatization of surveillance means even less accountability?
  9. More information
    1. Other web sites
    2. News stories from IPS

Secrecy; US Congress unaware of mass NSA surveillance program

One of the major concerns in the US has been how members of the US Congress themselves were not aware at how vast the activities were. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist that published the documents from Edward Snowden wrote a follow-up article a week after the initial revelations. He noted Democratic Representative Loretta Sanchez’s comments said after Congress was given a classified briefing by NSA officials on the agency’s previously secret surveillance activities that what was revealed was just the tip of the iceberg and that it is broader than most people even realize. She added that most of them in that session were astounded to learn some of this.

Greenwald continued to reflect on the gravity of what she said:

… as a member of Congress, she had no idea how invasive and vast the NSA’s surveillance activities are. Sen. Jon Tester, who is a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said the same thing, … quite frankly, it helps people like me become aware of a situation that I wasn’t aware of before because I don’t sit on that Intelligence Committee.

How can anyone think that it’s remotely healthy in a democracy to have the NSA building a massive spying apparatus about which even members of Congress, including Senators on the Homeland Security Committee, are totally ignorant and find astounding when they learn of them? How can anyone claim with a straight face that there is robust oversight when even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are so constrained in their ability to act that they are reduced to issuing vague, impotent warnings to the public about what they call radical secret law enabling domestic spying that would stun Americans to learn about it, but are barred to disclose what it is they’re so alarmed by? … What kind of person would think that it would be preferable to remain in the dark — totally ignorant — about them?

Glenn Greenwald,
On Prism, partisanship and propaganda
, The Guardian, June 14, 2013

And even the original author of the controversial Patriot Act, has argued that the current metadata collection is unbounded in scope. He added that the vast majority of records collected have nothing to do with investigating terrorism, and asked, How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?

Greenwald also makes an interesting observation about partisanship and describes how in 2006 the Democrats were very clearly opposed to this kind of secret surveillance that Republicans had spear-headed in the aftermatch of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. And he contrasts that with how defensive Democrats have been this time round. He also points to this interesting YouTube video that summarizes this (though read the article, too!)

Biden in 2006 schools Obama in 2013 over NSA spying program, Electronic Frontier Foundation, June 2013

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If you’ve got nothing to hide…

Defenders of these programs have often argued that if you have nothing to hide then you should not worry about this invasion of privacy.

Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, responded as to why you should care:

We’re bad at privacy because the consequences of privacy disclosures are separated by a lot of time and space from the disclosures themselves … it happens so far away from the disclosure that we can’t learn from it.

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

You should care about privacy because if the data says you’ve done something wrong, then the person reading the data will interpret everything else you do through that light.

You should care about surveillance because you know people who can be compromised through disclosure: people who are gay and in the closet; people with terminal illnesses; people who are related to someone infamous for some awful crime. Those people are your friends, your neighbors, maybe your kids: they deserve a life that’s as free from hassle as you are with your lucky, skeleton-free closet.

You should care about surveillance because once the system for surveillance is built into the networks and the phones, bad guys (or dirty cops) can use it to attack you.

As for Hague: if the innocent have nothing to fear from disclosure, then why did his own government demand an unprecedented system of secret courts in which evidence of UK intelligence complicity in illegal kidnapping and torture can be heard? Privacy, it appears, is totally essential for the powerful and completely worthless for the rest of us.

Cory Doctorow, The NSA’s Prism: why we should care, The Guardian, June 14, 2013 (Emphasis added)

And, John Naughton, writing in The Observer, adds:

Citizens who had done nothing wrong, declared Uncle Hague, had nothing to fear from comprehensive surveillance.

Oh yeah? As Stephen Fry observed in an exasperated tweet: William Hague’s view seems to be we can hide a camera & bug in your room & if you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s the worry? Hell’s teeth!

Hell’s teeth indeed. I can think of thousands of people who have nothing to hide, but who would have good reasons to worry about intrusive surveillance. Journalists seeking to protect their sources, for example; NHS whistleblowers; people seeking online help for personal psychological torments; frightened teenagers seeking advice on contraception or abortion; estranged wives of abusive husbands; asylum seekers and dissident refugees; and so on.

In a way, Hague’s smug, patronising tone was the least troubling aspect of the NSA/GCHQ story. More worrying was the unexplained contradiction between claims in the Prism PowerPoint slides that the NSA routinely collects data from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple, and the companies’ frantic denials that this was the case.

John Naughton, The NSA has us snared in its trap – and there’s no way out, The Observer, June 15, 2013

The other thing Hague overlooks is how the UK’s GCHQ used very deceptive means to intercept communications during important G20 summits to understand the private positions of other governments, including regimes friendly with the UK. This included setting up fake Internet cafes, installing spyware such as keyloggers, and intercepting emails.

It has often been thought that all governments would like to (or do) perform some form of spying and espionage during international meetings, and it is sometimes in the national interest to do so (or at least can be argued that way).

In addition, as the journal Foreign Policy revealed, the US spied on its own citizens as far back as the Vietnam war, including spying on two of its own sitting senior senators and prominent figures such as Martin Luther King, boxer Muhammad Ali, and others. This wasn’t with congressional oversight, but at the White House’s behest; an abuse of power, as the journal also noted.

But it has been rarely possible to prove such suspicions, until now. Another important example was the US and UK’s efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the various UN meetings about Iraq-related resolutions, where the US and UK were thought to be spying on friends and others.

Finally, the if you have nothing to hide argument misses a fundamental point; having such vasts amount of data, potentially unnecessarily when collected via a dragnet style system, is awaiting abuse. The NSA and others currently claim they are not abusing their roles (but we have already heard them lie to Congress, so they are already facing public trust issues which is hard for a secretive organization anyway), but with all this data, it is the potential to abuse it (internally, or through hacks, etc) that is the privacy concern here. Secrecy (especially in a democracy) by-passes checks and balances. In the case of the US, who strongly claim there is legal and judicial oversight in these things, it is still done in secrecy; it is not clear how much personal data of ordinary citizens (of the US and rest of the world) is caught in this.

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Access to vasts amount of user data from Internet Giants

Another aspect of the US/NSA spying story was the involvement of Internet giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter.

It was claimed that the NSA had some kind of backdoor or direct access to the vasts amount of data these companies have on their users, which the Internet titans vigorously denied. In some ways, these denials appear to be spin as companies have to comply with legal surveillance requests and the information may not technically be shared via backdoors.

On the other hand, companies are not legally allowed to acknowledge certain types of intelligence requests so legally there can be vasts amounts of data sharing but the secrecy surrounding it means it is not clear how much privacy invasion is legitimate or not.

But at the very least it emerged there were possibly thousands of requests for virtually all data for various users they would target. And that the NSA were able to capture a vast amount of Internet data.

Edward Snowden told the Hong Kong-based South China Post that there had been more than 61,000 hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the [Chinese] mainland. We hack network backbones–like huge Internet routers, basically–that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one, Snowden added.

And some companies are only too willing to sell to the US government to support these activities. For example, Inter Press Service notes a Californian company offering US government agencies software to intercept signals on undersea cables that can be used to analyze all sorts of popular Internet services, such as Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

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Internet Governance

It is interesting to note that a few months earlier the US was resisting what seemed like international efforts to put the stewardship of the Internet in the hands of the United Nations rather than being a decentralized system (though with the US having final say over the changes to certain aspects of the core, or root, Internet servers).

At the time, much of the technology community and others argued that the US is a good defender of the Internet (and helped create it in the first place), and that putting it into the hands of the UN was really the agenda of nations like Russia, China and others with questionable records on human rights. Examples such as surveillance and censorship were given as reasons to not trust other governments. And forums and blogs were filled with the usual over-simplistic UN-bashing that the US is often known for.

The US, by comparison, (probably rightly) argued that the current decentralized system works well. Internet giants such as Google also weighed in along similar lines, as did various Internet freedom activist organizations and individuals.

Unfortunately, even with the current system, governments unfortunately can sensor large portions of the Internet if they want to. But as the recent spying episode has revealed as well, this is perhaps another reason for the US not wanting to relinquish control of such a globally valuable resource. Being able to tap into some of the core Internet servers, many of which are based in the US or US-friendly nations, gives it an advantage of other countries and entities.

In other words, if even within the current system countries like China and Russia can censor and monitor the Internet why do they care about wanting more control? Larry Geller gives an example:

No doubt wrongdoers completely understand that they mustn’t plot their activities using Gmail. They know that if their cell phones are powered on, someone in the US knows where they are. So they avoid using the systems that the NSA is tracking. Those whose data does get recorded and analyzed are overwhelmingly ordinary citizens—of this and other countries. The NSA computers are filled with ordinary people’s data, including details of their love-lives, their financial transactions, and which movies they’ve ordered tickets to see.

The recent leaks by Edward Snowden may revive pressure to move to more local control of data flows to prevent US spying. Do other countries care whether we record their citizen’s private data? Perhaps not so much. But Putin may care that his own phone calls are on file someplace in Utah.

Larry Geller, NSA spying may revive opposition to US control over the Internet, Disappeared News, June 11, 2013

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Americans and citizens of other countries

Some of the scandal in the US has been that the surveillance by NSA has included American citizens. Lost in that concern is the privacy of non-US citizens. It almost appears that mainstream US media are not too worried about that. But citizens around the world are rightly out-raged.

It is not like the US-based services (such as those from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and others) are easily replaceable. Not only do people around the world rely on these services, but those companies rely on people around the world using their services too.

Being global services, the idea of nation states and citizen rights have not really evolved quickly enough to cater for the changes being brought about by the Internet. (It has similarly been argued that the way corporations are pushing for a neoliberal form of globalization, nation states are struggling to cope with that, too, so there is perhaps a real issue of democracy and people’s rights in a new world that is fundamentally at stake.)

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Spying on friendly countries and international institutions

I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that … we can prevent a terrorist attack… We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that. And we’ve tried to set up a system … to make sure that these programs are not abused.

US President Barack Obama, President Obama Holds a Press Conference, Whitehouse.gov, August 9, 2013

Breaking UN protocol at a General Assembly meeting of all members states Brazil strongly criticized the US for illegally infiltrating its communications network, intercepting phone calls, and breaking into the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations. President Dilma Rousseff dismissed the US argument that such activities were to counter terrorism. Instead, she argued, corporate information — often of high economic and even strategic value — was at the center of espionage activities.

Reports also surfaced of the US spying on the United Nations and various European countries, including the office of the European Union at the UN. The US had managed to crack the UN’s internal video teleconferencing system, as part of its surveillance of the world body.

Leading technology web site, Ars Technica, also adds that the NSA also runs a bugging program in more than 80 embassies and consulates around the world, under a program called the Special Collection Service, an intensive program that has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists, according to Der Spiegel.

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US mainstream media focus on Edward Snowden

When Edward Snowden made his revelations he hoped the focus would be on the issues, not on him or his plight. But as many have known for many years, the US mainstream media is rarely able to do reporting of serious issues; sensationalism and focusing on individuals are easier to do compared to tackling core issues which can hold power to account (be it government, corporate or otherwise).

In a Q&A session with The Guardian, he noted that Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.

In the US, much of the focus had become about whether he was a traitor or not; he felt there was no chance of a fair trial in the US because the US had openly accused and judged him of treason. In response to questions about whether he was a traitor he added

US officials say this every time there’s a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to achieve that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.

It’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former vice president Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American.

Glen Greenwald, Edward Snowden: NSA whistleblower answers reader questions, The Guardian, June 17, 2013

When asked how the treatment of other whistleblowers influenced him, he had a profound challenge for President Obama:

Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers. If the Obama administration responds with an even harsher hand against me, they can be assured that they’ll soon find themselves facing an equally harsh public response.

This disclosure provides Obama an opportunity to appeal for a return to sanity, constitutional policy, and the rule of law rather than men. He still has plenty of time to go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it. I would advise he personally call for a special committee to review these interception programs, repudiate the dangerous State Secrets privilege, and, upon preparing to leave office, begin a tradition for all Presidents forthwith to demonstrate their respect for the law by appointing a special investigator to review the policies of their years in office for any wrongdoing. There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny — they should be setting the example of transparency.

Glen Greenwald, Edward Snowden: NSA whistleblower answers reader questions, The Guardian, June 17, 2013

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Privatization of surveillance means even less accountability?

Chris Pyle, a former military instructor exposed the CIA and Army’s monitoring of millions of Americans engaged in lawful political activity in the 1970s. His revelations ultimately leading to a series of laws aimed at curbing government abuses.

He was recently interviewed by the excellent Democracy Now! about the recent NSA revelations and echoed concerns raised by others; about lack of knowledge and oversight by Congress and that the secrecy is out of control.

But he also adds that privatization of surveillance (70% percent of the intelligence budget of the United States today goes to private contractors, Democracy Now! notes) is resulting in a lack of accountability and importantly a way for governments to shirk their legal responsibilities; the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, only binds the government, doesn’t bind corporations. That’s a serious problem, he notes.

Chris Pyle, Whistleblower on Domestic Spying in 70s, Says Be Wary of Attacks on NSA’s Critics, Democracy Now!, June 13 2013

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More information

This web site will probably not be able to keep up with new revelations as they are published. However, there are a number of sites that are worth following on this issue. In addition, the IPS news feed that this site carries will also cover this.

Other web sites

Here are a number of web sites that have further information and can cover this story as it happens far quicker than this web site can:

News stories from IPS

Below is a list of stories from Inter Press Service related to this issue.

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