Initial thoughts on the NSA-Verizon surveillance order


UPDATE #1 (1900 ET):  The WaPo and Guardian report this evening that through its PRISM program, NSA also is directly tapped into the systems of many leading Internet services, such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, AOL, Skype, and (as of April 2013) Apple.

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The Internet and mainstream media are abuzz this morning with reports of the court order directing Verizon to turn over call information ("telephony metadata") to the National Security Agency (NSA). Specifically, it requires the company to make available to the Agency "all call detail records or "telephony metadata" created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."   It's a good bet similar orders were issued to the other American telephone and/or Internet providers as well.  I'm not surprised at this revelation, mind you: however it's both refreshing -- and disturbing -- to see official proof come into public view after all these years.

The far-reaching order (which is nothing more than a routine three-month reauthorisation of an ongoing seven-year practice) clarifies that "Telephony metadata includes comprehensive communications routing information,. including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call. Telephony metadata does not include the substantive content of any communication, as defined by 18 U.S.C. § 2510(8), or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer."

The court order is classified "TOP SECRET // SI // NOFORN" which places it very high on the classification food chain as something considered a national security secret pertaining to signals intelligence and was first disclosed by the UK's Guardian last evening.  (Side note: A friend commented that it was noteworthy that a foreign paper broke the story.)

The "ink is still drying" on the initial reports of this story, and presumably there will be more in-depth analyses and public outcry in the days and weeks ahead.  Thankfully, as the EFF notes in their blog posting today, Americans finally know how their government secretly interpreted Section 215 of the "PATRIOT" Act over the years and what various pro-privacy, concerned senators ominiously warned us about but were unable to provide any details due to their secrecy oaths.  Even defending this revelation today, certain Members of Congress claim this practice has "prevented [fairly recent] attacks against America" but decline to say more because of security.

As such, one overarching question come to mind as I ponder this latest disclosure: what happened to the civil libertarians in the Obama Administration?

As I recall, during their two presidential campaigns, there was great talk about rolling back parts of the "PATRIOT" Act (quotes used advisedly) and restricting the controversial domestic electronic surveillance activities conducted by its predecessor.  They won, but that hasn't happened -- quite frankly, in some cases it's only gotten worse. Not to mention, an anonymous Administration official today defended this practice as a "critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States."  

If today's disclosure isn't disturbing enough for civil libertarians (if not all citizens) remember that the FBI presently is seeking expanded authorities to backdoor everything we own - software, phones, devices -- for surveillance purposes (aka "CALEA 2.0") and the Administration reportedly is supporting these measures despite security experts warning that such capabilities have the potential to cause significant and widespread cybersecurity concerns. How does the Administration reconcile its alleged desire for improved domestic cybersecurity (and commitment to constitutional protections) if at the same time its own law enforcement agencies are pushing for measures that create more cybersecurity and/or privacy vulnerabilities?  To make things more interesting when discussing civil liberties, an internal DHS report disclosed that the agency believes it is acceptable to search electronic devices entering the United States based simply on "a hunch" -- all to protect the homeland, of course.

Call me cynical or jaded (although I have been in Washington since 1992) but I don't buy the frequent explanation by executive branch insiders that once a President is elected and "gets access to secret information" they suddenly realise that all the controversial 'tools' and questionable legal interpretations employed to 'protect' the country from prior administrations must be continued, even those they campaigned against.  Given that many of these 'tools' were reactionary and implemented quickly by fearful lawmakers eager to be seen as 'strong' on homeland security in the years following 9/11/01 (and/or influenced by the military-industrial-homeland-congressional complex) it's all the more reason to begin a comprehensive public, objective, and informed reassessment of their continued use.  We must accept the reality that no matter how much data is collected, nations never will be able to prevent any and all future Bad Things from happening -- and while that's a noble (but unreachable) goal that reassures the citizenry, at what point do we allow policymakers to take enough steps toward that goal that they end up conceptually destroying the very nation they're purportedly trying to save?

The track record of the Obama Administration on civil liberties bears much closer scrutiny.  Friendly smiles and polished rhetoric about the importance of civil liberties as part of the American experience should not be used to conceal ongoing actions quite to the contrary.  Actions can, and do, speak louder than words.


Can the Obama Administration assure the American public that all those Cray supercomputers at NSA are using all this phone data to track down networks of rag-headed terrorists rather than the "political enemies" of the administration? Dick Nixon would be envious of their current capabilities.

I think that this stems not from "Now that I'm getting the President's Daily Brief I see what George was talking about." I think it is more related to this administration, across all its top level, are people who firmly believe that government is, and can only be, good when they are in charge.

The trunk data includes approximate geo-location information to within .3 miles. The trunk data provided does not necessarily have to pertain to information about where a call was initiated or received. The mere fact that a cell phone is one and located near a particular tower could be considered part of the 'trunk data'. The press has not properly reported the full nature of the monitoring being done by the NSA. Any specialist at ATT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or other carrier can confirm that this claim is factual.

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