talking on cellphone in a crowd

Well, doh!

| The Guardian and Washington Post have both published blockbuster articles detailing ways that the government, namely the National Security Agency, is spying on US citizens.

Two pieces of evidence have been offered up:

The phone records

The order, apparently sought by the FBI, requires that Verizon turn over “all call detail records . . . created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The data, as described so far, consist essentially of phone number, number called, and call duration. Lawmakers and administration officials have lined up at microphones to say Nothing to see here folks, move along.  When Diane Feinstein says, "we've been doing this for years" you had better believe her.

The information involved -- if the reports are correct -- is not very earth-shattering. That "metadata" are in effect the very information that the phone company keeps in order to produce your bill:

phone bill
An excerpt from my phone bill

What is news here is the revelation that the government is scooping up that billing information and doing it under an order from the secret FISA court. The FISA court operates in secret and its decisions are classified. if the order turns out to be real, and there is every reason to believe it will, this is the first such order anyone has ever seen. 

Understand that when someone receives one of these FISA orders, be it the phone company or your public library, they are prohibited under the law from revealing the order or even revealing that they have received one! So when Verizon says "No comment" they are following the law.

Protestations that no names are involved is simply specious — once you have a phone number you have the name, and with those call records you can quickly map out everyone that person has ever talked to on the phone.

Protestations that "no one is listening to your calls" must also be taken with a grain of salt. 

The big questions involve the iceberg of which the Verizon case is simply the tip: What other phone companies are under similar orders? What information are they really turning over? My guess is every phone company (and not just the "business" sectors) and everything they've got (possibly including messages stored in the phone company's voicemail system).

But don't cry too many crocodile tears

As Pogo once opined, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Those who lament the loss of privacy need to consider what has happened to phone calls.

british phone box
British phone box
US phone booth with a door
US phone booth with a door
open phone booth
Open phone booth, more to protect the phone than your conversation

hard break

cell phone user in a crowd
Privacy? What privacy?
cell phone user in a crowd
Yakkety yak!

Once upon a time, phone conversations were considered private: you went into a booth and closed the door before having your conversation. Over time, the booths lost their doors and eventually became merely niches to protect the phone, not your conversation. With the advent of the cell phone, all traces of privacy, or the apparent desire for privacy, disappeared. People make their calls surrounded by others, often at full volume. Can you hear me now?

Server scooping

The nine companies identified in the NSA briefing PowerPoint are the technology elite. The nine are (in order of their becoming "partners"): Microsoft (9/11/07), Yahoo (3/12/08), Google (1/14/09), Facebook (6/3/09), PalTalk (12/7/09), YouTube (9/24/10), Skype (2/6/11), AOL (3/31/11), Apple (10/??/12).

There is not an American who uses the internet who does not interact with at least one of these companies. And the data that are being scooped up are wide-ranging: email, chat, video, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, logins, social networking details (NSA PowerPoint).

The companies have rushed to the microphone with denials:

NSA data center near Salt Lake City
NSA data center near Salt Lake City

What I find curious is how prominently the phrase "direct access to our servers" pops up in the companies statements. What do they mean by "direct access"? What about indirect access?

That careful phrasing smells of "plausible deniability" to me. 

These companies among them must have several million servers located around the world. It's not inconceivable that some of them are located at the NSA itself. After all, there has to be a reason the NSA is building a giant data center in the Utah desert!

The government wanting access to company servers is nothing new. 'Nuff said.

The root of all this evil

It is our old friend, the Patriot Act that set all this spying in motion. The law was written in haste after 9/11/2001, and its many provisions are often vague (purposely so?). Many in Congress never actually read the act before voting "aye" in the climate of fear created by the attacks of 9/11. There have been opportunities to revise or even repeal the Patriot Act when it comes up periodically for renewal, but no one really wants to think about it.

Imagine if you voted to change something in the Act and then the US were attacked again. It would be your fault because you took away the government's ability to "connect the dots", etcetera. And so the paranoia cultivated by the Bush administration reigns supreme. And the Obama administration, that many expected to dismantle some of the security apparatus, seems to have doubled-down on it. 

And maybe that's the right thing to do. But what's not right is to do all this in secrecy. We as Americans have always assumed that other countries were spying on us. We also assumed that we were not spying on ourselves. The spate of recent revelations shows that that was a false assumption.

But you know things have gone beyond the pale when the guy who wrote the Patriot Act is condemning the data grabs:  “I do not believe the released FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the Act?” He went on to say in a press release, "Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American" (Huffington Post).

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Last updated on Apr 13, 2018

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