Surveillance State: NSA Spying and more
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At the start of June 2013, a large number of documents detailing surveillance by intelligence agencies such as the US’s NSA and UK’s GCHQ started to be revealed, based on information supplied by NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden.
These leaks revealed a massive surveillance program that included interception of email and other Internet communications and phone call tapping. Some of it appears illegal, while other revelations show the US spying on friendly nations during various international summits.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of furor. While some countries are no doubt using this to win some diplomatic points, there has been increased tensions between the US and other regions around the world.
Much of the US surveillance programs came from the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the US in 20011. Concerns about a crackdown on civil rights2 in the wake of the so-called
war on terror have been expressed for a long time, and these revelations seem to be confirming some of those fears.
Given the widespread collection of information, apparently from central servers of major Internet companies and from other core servers that form part of the Internet backbone, activities of millions (if not billions) of citizens have been caught up in a dragnet style surveillance problem called PRISM, even when the communication has nothing to do with terrorism.
What impacts would such secretive mass surveillance have on democracy?
On this page:
- Secrecy; US Congress unaware of mass NSA surveillance program
- If you’ve got nothing to hide…
- Access to vasts amount of user data from Internet Giants
- Internet Governance
- Americans and citizens of other countries
- Spying on friendly countries and international institutions
- US mainstream media focus on Edward Snowden
- Privatization of surveillance means even less accountability?
- More information
Secrecy; US Congress unaware of mass NSA surveillance program
One of the major concerns in the US has been how members of the US Congress themselves were not aware at how vast the activities were. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist that published the documents from Edward Snowden wrote a follow-up article a week after the initial revelations. He noted Democratic Representative Loretta Sanchez’s comments said after Congress was given a classified briefing by NSA officials on the agency’s previously secret surveillance activities that what was revealed was just the
tip of the iceberg and that it is
broader than most people even realize. She added that most of them in that session were astounded to learn some of this.
Greenwald continued to reflect on the gravity of what she said:
And even the original author of the controversial Patriot Act, has argued that the current metadata collection is
unbounded in scope4. He added that the vast majority of records collected have nothing to do with investigating terrorism, and asked,
How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?
Greenwald also makes an interesting observation about partisanship and describes how in 2006 the Democrats were very clearly opposed to this kind of secret surveillance that Republicans had spear-headed in the aftermatch of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. And he contrasts that with how defensive Democrats have been this time round. He also points to this interesting YouTube video that summarizes this (though read the article, too!)
If you’ve got nothing to hide…
Defenders of these programs have often argued that if you have nothing to hide then you should not worry about this invasion of privacy.
Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, responded as to why you should care:
And, John Naughton, writing in The Observer, adds:
The other thing Hague overlooks is how the UK’s GCHQ used very deceptive means to intercept communications during important G20 summits8 to understand the private positions of other governments, including regimes friendly with the UK. This included setting up fake Internet cafes, installing spyware such as keyloggers, and intercepting emails.
It has often been thought that all governments would like to (or do) perform some form of spying and espionage during international meetings, and it is sometimes in the national interest to do so (or at least can be argued that way).
In addition, as the journal Foreign Policy revealed, the US spied on its own citizens as far back as the Vietnam war, including spying on two of its own sitting senior senators and prominent figures such as Martin Luther King, boxer Muhammad Ali, and others9. This wasn’t with congressional oversight, but at the White House’s behest; an abuse of power, as the journal also noted.
But it has been rarely possible to prove such suspicions, until now. Another important example was the US and UK’s efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq in 200310, and the various UN meetings about Iraq-related resolutions, where the US and UK were thought to be spying on friends and others.
if you have nothing to hide argument misses a fundamental point; having such vasts amount of data, potentially unnecessarily when collected via a dragnet style system, is awaiting abuse. The NSA and others currently claim they are not abusing their roles (but we have already heard them lie to Congress, so they are already facing public trust issues which is hard for a secretive organization anyway), but with all this data, it is the potential to abuse it (internally, or through hacks, etc) that is the privacy concern here. Secrecy (especially in a democracy) by-passes checks and balances. In the case of the US, who strongly claim there is legal and judicial oversight in these things, it is still done in secrecy; it is not clear how much personal data of ordinary citizens (of the US and rest of the world) is caught in this.
Access to vasts amount of user data from Internet Giants
Another aspect of the US/NSA spying story was the involvement of Internet giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter.
It was claimed that the NSA had some kind of backdoor or direct access11 to the vasts amount of data these companies have on their users, which the Internet titans vigorously denied. In some ways, these denials appear to be spin12 as companies have to comply with legal surveillance requests13 and the information may not technically be shared via backdoors.
On the other hand, companies are not legally allowed to acknowledge certain types of intelligence requests so legally there can be vasts amounts of data sharing but the secrecy surrounding it means it is not clear how much privacy invasion is legitimate or not.
But at the very least it emerged there were possibly thousands of requests for virtually all data for various users they would target. And that the NSA were able to capture a vast amount of Internet data.
Edward Snowden told the Hong Kong-based South China Post that
there had been more than 61,000 hacking operations globally
14, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the [Chinese] mainland.
We hack network backbones–like huge Internet routers, basically–that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one, Snowden added.
And some companies are only too willing to sell to the US government to support these activities. For example, Inter Press Service notes a Californian company offering US government agencies software to intercept signals on undersea cables 15 that can be used to analyze all sorts of popular Internet services, such as Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
It is interesting to note that a few months earlier the US was resisting what seemed like international efforts to put the stewardship of the Internet in the hands of the United Nations rather than being a decentralized system (though with the US having final say over the changes to certain aspects of the core, or root, Internet servers).
At the time, much of the technology community and others argued that the US is a good defender of the Internet (and helped create it in the first place), and that putting it into the hands of the UN was really the agenda of nations like Russia, China and others with questionable records on human rights. Examples such as surveillance and censorship were given as reasons to not trust other governments. And forums and blogs were filled with the usual over-simplistic UN-bashing that the US is often known for.
The US, by comparison, (probably rightly) argued that the current decentralized system works well. Internet giants such as Google also weighed in along similar lines16, as did various Internet freedom activist organizations and individuals.
Unfortunately, even with the current system, governments unfortunately can sensor large portions of the Internet if they want to. But as the recent spying episode has revealed as well, this is perhaps another reason for the US not wanting to relinquish control of such a globally valuable resource. Being able to tap into some of the core Internet servers, many of which are based in the US or US-friendly nations, gives it an advantage of other countries and entities.
In other words, if even within the current system countries like China and Russia can censor and monitor the Internet why do they care about wanting more control? Larry Geller gives an example:
Americans and citizens of other countries
Some of the scandal in the US has been that the surveillance by NSA has included American citizens. Lost in that concern is the privacy of non-US citizens. It almost appears that mainstream US media are not too worried about that. But citizens around the world are rightly out-raged.
It is not like the US-based services (such as those from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and others) are easily replaceable. Not only do people around the world rely on these services, but those companies rely on people around the world using their services too.
Being global services, the idea of nation states and citizen rights have not really evolved quickly enough to cater for the changes being brought about by the Internet. (It has similarly been argued that the way corporations are pushing for a neoliberal form of globalization18, nation states are struggling to cope with that, too, so there is perhaps a real issue of democracy19 and people’s rights in a new world that is fundamentally at stake.)
Spying on friendly countries and international institutions
Breaking UN protocol at a General Assembly meeting of all members states
Brazil strongly criticized the US for illegally infiltrating its communications network, intercepting phone calls, and breaking into the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations
21. President Dilma Rousseff dismissed the US argument that such activities were to counter terrorism. Instead, she argued,
corporate information — often of high economic and even strategic value — was at the center of espionage activities.
Reports also surfaced of the US spying on the United Nations and various European countries22, including the office of the European Union at the UN. The US had managed to crack the UN’s internal video teleconferencing system, as part of its surveillance of the world body.
Leading technology web site, Ars Technica, also adds that the NSA also runs a bugging program in more than 80 embassies and consulates around the world23, under a program called the
Special Collection Service, an
intensive program that has
little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists, according to Der Spiegel.
US mainstream media focus on Edward Snowden
When Edward Snowden made his revelations he hoped the focus would be on the issues, not on him or his plight. But as many have known for many years, the US mainstream media is rarely able to do reporting of serious issues24; sensationalism and focusing on individuals are easier to do compared to tackling core issues which can hold power to account (be it government, corporate or otherwise).
In a Q&A session with The Guardian, he noted that
Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.
In the US, much of the focus had become about whether he was a traitor or not; he felt there was no chance of a fair trial in the US because the US had openly accused and judged him of treason. In response to questions about whether he was a traitor he added
When asked how the treatment of other whistleblowers influenced him, he had a profound challenge for President Obama:
Privatization of surveillance means even less accountability?
Chris Pyle, a former military instructor exposed the CIA and Army’s monitoring of millions of Americans engaged in lawful political activity in the 1970s. His revelations ultimately leading to a series of laws aimed at curbing government abuses.
He was recently interviewed by the excellent Democracy Now! about the recent NSA revelations and echoed concerns raised by others; about lack of knowledge and oversight by Congress and that the secrecy is out of control.
But he also adds that privatization of surveillance (70% percent of the intelligence budget of the United States today goes to private contractors, Democracy Now! notes) is resulting in a lack of accountability and importantly a way for governments to shirk their legal responsibilities;
the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, only binds the government, doesn’t bind corporations. That’s a serious problem, he notes.
This web site will probably not be able to keep up with new revelations as they are published. However, there are a number of sites that are worth following on this issue. In addition, the IPS news feed that this site carries will also cover this.
Other web sites
Here are a number of web sites that have further information and can cover this story as it happens far quicker than this web site can:
News stories from IPS
Below is a list of stories from Inter Press Service related to this issue.
(Note that listed here are only those hyperlinks to other articles from other web sites or elsewhere on this web site. Other sources such as journal, books and magazines, are mentioned above in the original text. Please also note that links to external sites are beyond my control. They might become unavailable temporarily or permanently since you read this, depending on the policies of those sites, which I cannot unfortunately do anything about.)
- Global Issues: “War on Terror”, Last updated: Monday, October 07, 2013, https://www.globalissues.org/issue/245/war-on-terror
- Global Issues: “War on Terror: Crackdown on Civil Rights; War on Freedom”, Last updated: Sunday, June 29, 2008, https://www.globalissues.org/article/354/crackdown-on-civil-rights-war-on-freedom
- Cyrus Farivar, 'Patriot Act author says NSA’s bulk data collection is “unbounded in its scope”, Ars Technica, September 5, 2013, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/09/patriot-act-author-says-nsas-bulk-data-collection-is-unbounded-in-
- Ewen MacAskill, Nick Davies, Nick Hopkins, Julian Borger and James Ball, 'GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians' communications at G20 summits', The Guardian, June 17, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/16/gchq-intercepted-communications-g20-summits
- Matthew M. Aid, William Blur, 'Secret Cold War Documents Reveal NSA Spied on Senators', Foreign Policy, September 25, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/09/25/it_happened_here_NSA_spied_on_senators_1970s
- Global Issues: “Building the Case for a New War on Iraq”, Last updated: Sunday, March 30, 2003, https://www.globalissues.org/article/395/building-the-case-for-a-new-war
- Megan Geuss, 'Details emerge about PRISM, big tech companies release data request reports', June 16, 2013, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/06/details-emerge-about-prism-big-tech-companies-release-data-request
- Elias Groll, 'The PRISM spin war has begun', Foreign Policy, June 7, 2013, http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/07/the_prism_spin_war_has_begun
- Claire Cain Miller, 'Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program', New York Times, June 7, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/technology/tech-companies-bristling-concede-to-government-surveillance-effo
- Lana Lam, 'Edward Snowden: US government has been hacking Hong Kong and China for years', South China Morning Post, June 14, 2003, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1259508/edward-snowden-us-government-has-been-hacking-hong-kong-an
- Pratap Chatterjee, 'Glimmerglass Taps Undersea Cables for Spy Agencies', Inter Press Service, August 23, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/08/glimmerglass-taps-undersea-cables-for-spy-agencies
- Timothy B. Lee, 'Google rallies opposition to UN takeover of Internet governance', Ars Technica, November 20, 2012, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/11/google-rallies-opposition-to-un-takeover-of-internet-governance/
- Global Issues: “A Primer on Neoliberalism”, Last updated: Sunday, August 22, 2010, https://www.globalissues.org/article/39/a-primer-on-neoliberalism
- Global Issues: “Democracy”, Last updated: Saturday, January 28, 2012, https://www.globalissues.org/article/761/democracy
- Thalif Deen, 'Breaking U.N. Protocol, Brazil Lambastes U.S. Spying', Inter Press Service, September 24, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/09/breaking-u-n-protocol-brazil-lambastes-u-s-spying
- Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark, 'Codename ‘Apalachee’: How America Spies on Europe and the UN', Spiegel Online, August 26, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/secret-nsa-documents-show-how-the-us-spies-on-europe-and-the-un-a-9
- Joe Mullin, 'New report: NSA tapped into UN video conferences', Ars Technica, August 26, 2013, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/08/new-report-nsa-tapped-into-un-video-conferences/
- Global Issues: “Mainstream Media”, Last updated: Sunday, March 04, 2012, https://www.globalissues.org/issue/156/mainstream-media
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