Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Decade Late and a Dollar Short 

There has been much hand-wringing over the latest NSA data-mining revelations in tomorrow morning's NYT:
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.

The government's collection and analysis of phone and Internet traffic have raised questions among some law enforcement and judicial officials familiar with the program. One issue of concern to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has reviewed some separate warrant applications growing out of the N.S.A.'s surveillance program, is whether the court has legal authority over calls outside the United States that happen to pass through American-based telephonic "switches," according to officials familiar with the matter.

Since the disclosure last week of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance program, President Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications involving people with known links to Al Qaeda.

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation . . . .

Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials.
You know the gag: there are certain types of information about private citizens that the government is forbidden by law to collect. However, no such prohibition exists for private companies; they can collect whatever kind of data they want (ChoicePoint, anyone?), then turn around and sell it to the the government out of sheer patriotism.

But this is a not-so-new variation on a very old theme. The NSA's ECHELON system is shared by the five-nation UKUSA alliance established in 1948: the U.S., Canada, U.K., New Zealand, and Australia. American spooks have long relied upon their UKUSA buddies to collect the domestic intelligence they could not legally sniff out on their own; for example, although the NSA is forbidden to tap a phone conversation that takes place exclusively on American soil, the Brits are not. So they do. And somewhere down the line, America returns the favor, as Jason Vest explains in the Village Voice:

Hager and others also argue that potential for abuse lies in the hierarchical and reciprocal nature of the UKUSA alliance. According to data gathered by congressional committees in the '70s, and accounts of former SIGINT officers like Frost, UKUSA partners have, from time to time, used each other to circumvent prohibitions on spying on their own citizens. Frost, for example, directed Canadian eavesdropping operations against both Americans and Britons--at the request of both countries' intelligence services, to whom the surveillance data was subsequently passed.

And British Members of Parliament have raised concerns for years about the lack of oversight at the NSA's Menwith Hill facility--a base on British soil with access to British communications yet run by the NSA, which works closely with the GCHQ. "Given that both the U.S. and Britain turn their electronic spying systems against many other friendly and allied nations," says Hager, "the British would be naive not to assume it is happening to them."

In 1992 a number of British whistleblowers told the Observer that the agency they worked for, the GCHQ (Britain's equivalent of the NSA), was
routinely targeting the communications of Amnesty International and Christian Aid. Adds Hager, "The use of intelligence services in these cases had nothing to do with national security, but everything to do with keeping tabs on critics. The British government frequently finds itself in political conflict with Amnesty over countries it is supplying arms to or governments with bad human rights records. ECHELON provides the government with a way to gain advantage over Amnesty by eavesdropping on their operations."
Not that anything of the sort could ever happen here.

We cannot recommend Mr. Vest's article too highly. Read it, and try not to dwell overmuch on the technological advances that have undoubtedly been made since its original publication . . . back in August of 1998.

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