New tech is always a double-edged sword, with benefits balanced to an extent by the risk of misuse by idiots or criminals. Airplanes make possible fast travel but also saturation bombing; biotech gives us stem cell treatments and frankenfoods; antidepressants and painkillers help some people and addict countless others. TV, nuclear power, cars; pretty much the whole of the modern world has up-and-downsides.
On balance this progress has been a good thing — no one with any sense would go back to the days before antibiotics and iPhones. But the risks that come with so much new power are growing exponentially, so the good might not always outweigh the bad.
Which brings us to computers and telecommunications: Cell phones and the Internet have opened the global economy to pretty much everyone with an active mind while democratizing politics and bringing down dictatorships around the world. But those same technologies strengthen the more advanced states in terrifying ways with, as is usually the case lately, the US behaving like the craziest inmate in the asylum. Below are some excerpts from a recent Wired Magazine story on the US plan to intercept, store and mine pretty much the entire infosphere — all your phone calls, emails, texts, FaceBook posts, everything.
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”
For the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.
The data stored in Bluffdale will naturally go far beyond the world’s billions of public web pages. The NSA is more interested in the so-called invisible web, also known as the deep web or deepnet—data beyond the reach of the public. This includes password-protected data, US and foreign government communications, and noncommercial file-sharing between trusted peers. “The deep web contains government reports, databases, and other sources of information of high value to DOD and the intelligence community,” according to a 2010 Defense Science Board report. “Alternative tools are needed to find and index data in the deep web … Stealing the classified secrets of a potential adversary is where the [intelligence] community is most comfortable.” With its new Utah Data Center, the NSA will at last have the technical capability to store, and rummage through, all those stolen secrets. The question, of course, is how the agency defines who is, and who is not, “a potential adversary.”
The NSA has long been free to eavesdrop on international satellite communications. But after 9/11, it installed taps in US telecom “switches,” gaining access to domestic traffic. An ex-NSA official says there are 10 to 20 such installations. According to a knowledgeable intelligence source, the NSA has installed taps on at least a dozen of the major overseas communications links, each capable of eavesdropping on information passing by at a high data rate.
The eavesdropping on Americans doesn’t stop at the telecom switches. To capture satellite communications in and out of the US, the agency also monitors AT&T’s powerful earth stations, satellite receivers in locations that include Roaring Creek and Salt Creek. Tucked away on a back road in rural Catawissa, Pennsylvania, Roaring Creek’s three 105-foot dishes handle much of the country’s communications to and from Europe and the Middle East. And on an isolated stretch of land in remote Arbuckle, California, three similar dishes at the company’s Salt Creek station service the Pacific Rim and Asia.
Once the communications are intercepted and stored, the data-mining begins. “You can watch everybody all the time with data- mining,” [another former NSA official] says. Everything a person does becomes charted on a graph, “financial transactions or travel or anything,” he says. Thus, as data like bookstore receipts, bank statements, and commuter toll records flow in, the NSA is able to paint a more and more detailed picture of someone’s life.
The NSA also has the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls directly and in real time. According to Adrienne J. Kinne, who worked both before and after 9/11 as a voice interceptor at the NSA facility in Georgia, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks “basically all rules were thrown out the window, and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans.” In secret listening rooms nationwide, NSA software examines every email, phone call, and tweet as they zip by.
Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, [a former NSA official who left when the agency began violating the Constitution with impunity] holds his thumb and forefinger close together. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” he says.
To sum up: Pretty soon the US will have the ability to capture every signal flowing in, out, and within the country, store it all, break whatever encryption protects it, and mine it for any sign of dissent. And it’s all being done for our own good, to protect us from enemies that mean us harm.
Suddenly the flash mobs that use social media to stay one step ahead of local riot police look a lot more amateurish and less formidable.
Many questions are unanswered here, mostly centering on how the government is getting away with this. Not so long ago a wiretap took a warrant, signed by a judge and attested to by law enforcement officers who claimed constitutionally valid probable cause. How did the NSA suddenly acquire the power to spy at will on all US citizens, and why isn’t it front page news like the debate over the government’s ability to force citizens to buy health insurance?
Combine the above with the recent defense bill that gave the military the right to detain and even kill American citizens who are “suspected” of a connection to terrorism and, as the former NSA guy says, we have all the necessary pieces for a dystopia right out of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. Happy birthday, Big Brother!