There was a filibuster in the U.S. Senate last week. Yes, I know, that’s hardly news. And a cloture vote to end that filibuster. That’s hardly news, either. And the cloture vote failed. Not news.
The vote was, among other things, to end the National Security Agency’s collection of records of every phone call that you make. Which, sadly, also is no longer news. What would be news is if someone did something about it.
Fifty-eight senators voted in favor of ending the filibuster, and the "bulk collection." Only forty-two voted against. But we no longer live in a country where the majority rules, so every single time you make a phone call, the NSA will know to whom you spoke, and for how long.
Regarding the failed vote against the filibuster, the D.C. newspaper Roll Call opined that: "It’s probably going to take another series of revelations about NSA programs for strict legislation to get momentum again." But I’m wondering how much of the last series of revelations has been absorbed by the body politic. So I’m offering to you excerpts from a little-noticed interview that Edward Snowden did with The Guardian a few months ago, complete with British spelling. File it under the category of "read it and weep."
Yes, the NSA Shares Your Sexy Photos … And Other Observations from Edward Snowden
On NSA culture, sharing sexually compromising material
SNOWDEN: When you’re an NSA analyst and you’re looking for raw signals intelligence, what you realise is that the majority of the communications in our databases are not the communications of targets, they’re the communications of ordinary people, of your neighbours, of your neighbours’ friends, of your relations, of the person who runs the register at the store. They’re the most deep and intense and intimate and damaging private moments of their lives, and we’re seizing [them] without any authorisation, without any reason, records of all of their activities – their cell phone locations, their purchase records, their private text messages, their phone calls, the content of those calls in certain circumstances, transaction histories – and from this we can create a perfect, or nearly perfect, record of each individual’s activity, and those activities are increasingly becoming permanent records.
Many of the people searching through the haystacks were young, enlisted guys and … 18 to 22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all your private records. In the course of their daily work they stumble across something that is completely unrelated to their work, for example an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation but they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show a co-worker. And their co-worker says: "Oh, hey, that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way." And then Bill sends it to George, George sends it to Tom and sooner or later this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people. Anything goes, more or less. You’re in a vaulted space. Everybody has sort of similar clearances, everybody knows everybody. It’s a small world.
It’s never reported, nobody ever knows about it, the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak. Now while people may say that it’s an innocent harm, this person doesn’t even know that their image was viewed, it represents a fundamental principle, which is that we don’t have to see individual instances of abuse. The mere seizure of that communication by itself was an abuse. The fact that your private images, records of your private lives, records of your intimate moments have been taken from your private communication stream, from the intended recipient, and given to the government without any specific authorisation, without any specific need, is itself a violation of your rights. Why is that in the government database?
I’d say probably every two months you see something like that happen. It’s routine enough, depending on the company you keep, it could be more or less frequent. But these are seen as the fringe benefits of surveillance positions.
Why He Gave the Documents to Multiple Journalists
SNOWDEN: As an engineer, and particularly as somebody who worked in telecoms and things like that on these systems, the thing that you’re always terrified of when you’re thinking about reliability is SPOFs – Single Point of Failure, right? This was the thing I told the journalists: "If the government thinks you’re the single point of failure, they’ll kill you."
Whether Spying on Everyone Stops Terrorism
SNOWDEN: The White House investigated those programs [which allowed mass surveillance] on two separate occasions and on both occasions found that they had no value at all, and yet, while those panels recommended that they be terminated, when it actually came to the White House suggesting action to legislators, the legislators said: "Well, let’s not end these programs. Even though they’ve operated for 10 years and never stopped any imminent terrorist attacks, let’s keep them going."
Life at the NSA
SNOWDEN: I began to move from merely overseeing these systems to actively directing their use. Many people don’t understand that I was actually an analyst and I designated individuals and groups for targeting.
I was exposed to information about the previous programs like Stellar Wind [used during the presidency of George W Bush] for example. The warrantless wire-tapping of everyone in the United States, including their internet data – which is a violation of the constitution and law in the United States – did cause a scandal and was ended because of that.
When I saw that, that was really the earthquake moment because it showed that the officials who authorized these programs knew it was a problem, they knew they didn’t have any statutory authorization for these programs. But instead the government assumed upon itself, in secret, new executive powers without any public awareness or any public consent and used them against the citizenry of its own country to increase its own power, to increase its own awareness.
We constantly hear the phrase "national security" but when the state begins … broadly intercepting the communications, seizing the communications by themselves, without any warrant, without any suspicion, without any judicial involvement, without any demonstration of probable cause, are they really protecting national security or are they protecting state security?
What I came to feel – and what I think more and more people have seen at least the potential for – is that a regime that is described as a national security agency has stopped representing the public interest and has instead begun to protect and promote state security interests. And the idea of western democracy as having state security bureaus, just that term, that phrase itself, "state security bureau", is kind of chilling.
The relationship between the NSA and telecom and internet companies
SNOWDEN: Unusually hidden even from people who worked for these agencies are the details of the financial arrangements between [the] government and the telecommunication service providers. And we have to ask ourselves, why is that? Why are their details of how they’re being paid to collaborate with [the] government protected at a much greater level than for example the names of human agents operating undercover, embedded with terrorist groups?
What Happens If You Report Wrongdoing Through the Proper Channels
SNOWDEN: Thomas Drake, an American who exposed widespread lawlessness … [he was a senior NSA employee who raised concerns about agency programs and their impact on privacy] … rather than having those claims investigated, rather than having the wrongdoing remediated, they launched an investigation against him and … all of his co-workers.
They pulled them out of the shower at gunpoint, naked, in front of their families. They seized all of their communications and electronic devices, they interrogated them all, they threatened to put them in jail for life, for years and years and years, decades, and they destroyed their careers.
"The public should not know about these programmes. The public should not have a say in these programmes and, for God’s sake, the press had better not learn about these programmes or we will destroy you."
Compromising the Security of the Web Itself
SNOWDEN: A back door in a communications system, in an internet system, in an encryption standard is basically a secret method of getting around the security of those communications. It’s a way of subverting all of the privacy claims, all of the security claims that a company or a standard makes to the people who use a product or service.
The danger of building back doors like that, for example the Bullrun program where the NSA and GCHQ were shown to be collaborating and weakening the encryption standards that the entire internet relies on, means that when you’re accessing your bank account online there could be a secret weakness there that allows our western governments’ security services to monitor your bank details. What people often overlook is the fact that when you build a back door into a communication system that back door can be discovered by anyone around the world. That can be a private individual, that can be a security researcher at a university, but it can also be a criminal group. It can also be a foreign intelligence agency but, say, the NSA’s equivalent in a deeply irresponsible government in some foreign country. And now that foreign country can scrutinise not just your bank records, not just your private transactions but your private communications all around the internet and in every institution … that relies upon these standards – whether it’s Facebook, whether it’s Gmail, where it’s Skype, whether it’s Angry Birds. You’ve been made electronically naked as you go about your activities on the internet.
That decision wasn’t debated by any public body, it wasn’t authorised by any legislator. In fact, at least in the United States in the 1990s, law enforcement agencies asked specifically for this sort of back door access to internet communications. And our elected representatives in Congress rejected it. They said it was a violation of our civil rights and it was an unnecessary risk to the security of our communications, and so they shut it down.
But what we see is that 10 years later, instead of going back to Congress and asking again, they simply went ahead, and the intelligence community … said: "We’re going to do this. It doesn’t matter what Congress says. It doesn’t matter what the public thinks. We’re going to do this because it provides us an advantage."
And the consequences of that today are unknown because we could have foreign adversaries exploiting those back doors that intelligence agencies in countries like the United Kingdom, intelligence agencies like GCHQ, put into our communications … and we have no idea that it’s occurring.
What last year’s revelations showed us was irrefutable evidence that unencrypted communications on the internet are no longer safe and cannot be trusted. Their integrity has been compromised and we need new security pro[grams] to protect them. Any communications that are transmitted over the internet, over any networked line, should be encrypted by default. That’s what last year showed us.
Privacy and Liberty
SNOWDEN: Most reasonable people would grant that privacy is a function of liberty. And if we get rid of privacy, we’re making ourselves less free. If we want to live in open and liberal societies we need to have safe spaces where we can experiment with new thoughts, new ideas, and [where] we can discover what it is we really think and what we really believe in without being judged. If we can’t have the privacy of our bedrooms, if we can’t have the privacy of our notes on our computer, if we can’t have the privacy of our electronic diaries, we can’t have privacy at all.
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The NSA claims that Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes bulk collection. Section 215 expires on June 1, 2015. Watch as the storm clouds collect.
Rep. Alan Grayson