The NSA plays catch

The NSA plays catch
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The joke was suddenly everywhere, and with good cause.

Why didn’t the President just get the NSA to run his healthcare website?

Facetiously or not, old man Obama must be asking himself that question a lot these days, as the latest drips of information from noted hero/traitor Edward Snowden continue to expose, in ever-greater detail, the remarkable web-savvy of America’s shadowy National Security Agency, and its breathtaking power over all things internet.

The NSA, as we all know by now, is the department of the Pentagon that specializes in spying on subversives, both at home and abroad. Since 9-11, they’ve been given a sweeping anti-terrorism mandate by Congress, and a $10 billion-a-year budget to boot. Long hidden under the customary cloud of secrecy that shields any government outfit tasked with protecting the homeland, what exactly the NSA was doing with all that power and money remained cryptic for years, until Snowden came along last spring and exposed their so-called PRISM program — one of the most unsettlingly zealous surveillance initiatives of the online age.

Using powers granted by a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, PRISM gave the NSA authority to file court orders compelling major social media sites like Facebook, Skype, and Gmail to open up their servers and let the agency scoop out records of “suspicious” conversations involving foreigners — including conversations between foreigners and Americans. But let’s be clear, said the internet CEOs once this embarrassing news became public, in practical terms the NSA’s only interested in an “infinitesimally” tiny number of users, their subpoenas are exceedingly precise in scope, and there are oodles of lawyers involved. No one’s getting access to open-ended stuff like “everyone in Pakistan who searched for x,” in the words of one source.

Anyway, PRISM was a scheme involving what they call “front door” access, in the sense that just like a real front door, it required the consent of the owner (in this case, the tech companies) to open up and let the guests (in this case the NSA) in. But now, with this fresh batch of Snowden docs, the world has gained disturbing new evidence that the NSA wasn’t beyond backdoor shenanigans, either.

I’m not much of a techie, so forgive my simplistic generalizations, but apparently email providers like Google and Yahoo have gotten so big and sophisticated over the years they now own gigantic server facilities literally all over the planet. The business justifications for this are twofold. For one, it logically improves the speed and quality of services if (say) the needs of Asian users are handled by servers located in Asia itself, but so too does the growing risk of hacks and cyberterrorism — or just plain old errors and accidents — make it equally sensible for large American web corporations to store and backup some of their data overseas. For the NSA, who even when brimming with post 9-11 powers are still legally limited in how much snooping they can do on US targets, this overseas backing up business presents a tantalizing opportunity.

According to the latest Snowden revelations, the NSA has devised a sneaky way to intercept American data on its way to foreign-based servers by tapping into the enormous fibre-optic cables that move information across the ocean, at which point the bits and bytes can be plausibly classified as “foreign.” The Washington Post has a nice infographic illustrating how they speculate this might work in practice — they assume it might involve coercing the folks who run the cable landing stations on the shore.

Either way, news reports have been using damning phrases like “breaking in” to describe this technique; most analysts consider it illegal, and unlike the PRISM program, which requires the cooperation of the targeted corporations to work, this interception scheme — codenamed MUSCULAR — was entirely nonconsensual (“We are outraged,” cry the Google lawyers).

It also seems to be clumsy to the point of uselessness. As tech expert David Auerbach writes in a very insightful Slate editorial, MUSCULAR lacks the finesse and calculation of PRISM’s subpoena-based approach, since it merely vacuums up any and every scrap of data passing from the US to foreign shores without consideration of content, relevance, or even timeliness. A Gmail chat log might be months, or even years old by the time it makes its way from America to a storage server in Australia, at which point it’s hard to argue it would be of any use in apprehending imminent terrorist attacks — the NSA’s supposed raison d’être. The sheer amount of data obtained through MUSCULAR, likewise, has proven almost insultingly vast to those charged with processing it — as Auerbach notes, the Snowden leaks reveal NSA insiders “basically begging the agency to stop collecting so much useless garbage.”

But such is the dopey overzealousness of the NSA these days. Reading about MUSCULAR brought to mind Snowden’s other recent revelations about the organization’s similarly unfocused spy campaigns against foreign governments, efforts which were perhaps best summarized in a weekend New York Times story that revealed, amongst other things, that protecting the security of the United States apparently now entails paying civil servants to “peruse the private messages of obscure Venezuelan bureaucrats.”

Nervousness over government surveillance is a perfectly legitimate fear in any nation whose citizens enjoy a constitutionally-protected right to privacy, but so too can excessive fearmongering over creeping Orwellianism reek of paranoia and vanity (much as many would like to believe otherwise, having watched that Russell Brand video does not make you an enemy of the state). Just as the fact that the government owns a bunch of nuclear-tipped missiles doesn’t mean we should live in constant fear of being nuked in our beds, acknowledging the explicit context in which spy programs have been authorized to be used — thwarting acts of Islamist terrorism — is what separates the mature from the conspiratorial.

That being said, there’s also the unglamorous reality that all government programs deserve a frank assessment of how well they’re delivering on their promises — particularly when their budgets are in the billions, their constitutionality is highly suspect, and their mere existence seems to be poisoning the nation’s reputation abroad.

The NSA originally claimed its surveillance programs were responsible for stopping 54 terrorist attacks since 2008. Under pressure, they’ve since conceded the figure may be closer to two.

As far as cost/benefit analysis goes, that’s not exactly a slam-dunk for the spies.



  1. Sucros

    I really see this as a failure of the electorate more than anything else. It's not like the Patriot Act and subsequent legislation was debated in secret in the dead of night. There was extensive public debate on the matter and the electorate was polled on the matter repeatedly. How much individual freedom should be sacrificed in the name of how much security is exactly the kind of debate democratic governments are supposed to have.
    There were a number of proponents of the bill who believed granting this much power to intelligence agencies is justified and their argument is a perfectly valid one. So to were those who said that such legislation went too far. But there was a large group of the electorate and legislators who reduced the issue to "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists" and are now suffering buyers remorse.
    It's foolish to assume that a security agency use every single power legally accessible to them in the name of keeping the population safe, so if one doesn't wish to have their privacy invaded, they shouldn't vote to authorize exactly such activities.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    The only Senator against the Patriot Act was voted out of office. Due to the attacks, people act more like that episode of Futurama where Fry get an EyePhone. The sales clerk is stilling him about all the risks and he just says, "Just shut up and take my money!" We pretty much did the political equivalent of that, "Just shut up and keep us safe!"

    Or like those medicine commercials, "may cause diaherra, bleeding and death…" America: "Meh, it said MAY cause."

  3. Heartright

    as Auerbach notes, the Snowden leaks reveal NSA insiders “basically begging the agency to stop collecting so much useless garbage.”

    That is consistent with my own read of the PA when issued. A license to gather everything – with no thought given on how to profit from it.

    New York Times story that revealed, amongst other things, that protecting the security of the United States apparently now entails paying civil servants to “peruse the private messages of obscure Venezuelan bureaucrats.”

    On the other hand, as Viktor Suvorov noted, that kind of thing was pretty much how Stalin got his inside-look at the US/UK nuclear program.

    There is a lesson here for us Europeans. Loose talk is expensive. We must ALWAYS asume that any form of electronic communication is compromised.

  4. William

    I think it is clear that the idea behind gathering whatever useless garbage data the NSA can get its hands on is to store it until data analysis algorithm algorithms/computer processing power has improved to the point that it can be usefully analyzed. Yeah, sure the data may be decades old at the point so it won't be particularly relevant to "imminent terrorist attacks," but if they can figure out what the long-term digital footprint of a potential terrorist roughly looks like, that data will be useful in flagging potential terrorists decades from now for further scrutiny. Moreover, with an archive like that, if someone gets flagged by the the NSA a year from now as a potential terrorist, they can go back and look at the digital activity of that person right now for clues.

    On the other hand if someone with access to the NSA's data doesn't like you, it would be really easy to take a few items out of your long digital history out of context and use them to misrepresent you.

  5. Devil Child

    This past year has made me feel more embarrassed for my country than any year before.

    We've somehow created the worst possible scenario of all our allies being even more terrified and angry with us than they were during the Bush years without any of the beneficial fear those eight years gave our enemies. It's the foreign policy equivalent of dividing by zero.

  6. Dirk

    Dividing by zero, huh? So now foreign policy has learned limits and basic calculus? If so, how can you not say they're improving?

  7. Jake_Ackers

    Except no one ever blames Obama. And no one ever will blame Hillary or Biden or the Democrats. Rand When Bush does it, it's the end of the world.

  8. robota rozum

    According to the first poll I found on google (Pew), America enjoys a 63% favorable rating abroad as of July, a month after the PRISM revelation (which would be a great name for a prog rock band). In President Bush's second term this number was in the low 40s.

    I cannot find any empirical sources for "fear" polls.

  9. guest

    "the NSA wasn’t beyond backdoor shenanigans, either."
    Sorry, you will have to forgive my sophomoric giggle…

  10. Jake_Ackers

    The only thing the NSA has stopped is our Constitution. And this account in about a few seconds……

  11. r00fles

    at least they did something right

  12. robota rozum

    Will all lord Google's oceans wash this blood clean from the NSA's hands?

  13. Heartright

    Of course it will.

    Public opinion after 911 was after all, the Government must do whatever it takes!
    The NSA was faithfully executing public policy as determined by the Electorate.

    But the Electorate grows – as always – forgetful about it's own [ and sole! ] responsibility when the chickens come home to roost.

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