NSA’s Bulk Data Collection Fail

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board‘s just-released report doesn’t detail a single instance of the NSA’s bulk data collection leading to the foiling of a terrorist plot — for the simple reason that this oversight agency couldn’t find any — and yet, the mantra “to keep Americans safe” is incessantly uttered by  the NSA’s defenders whenever the wisdom (not to mention legality) of collecting pretty much every data bit generated by everyone, ever, is questioned.  (Well, once the NSA finally-sort of-almost-maybe admitted that’s what they might be doing — for your own good, of course. See how that one flies with Angela Merkel.)

With this latest report revealing that the NSA’s counter-terrorism claims have been wildly exaggerated, the data stockpile’s potential use for corruption ought also to get a closer look.  Even if 99.9 percent of NSA employees are 99.9 percent pure, a few bad-apple agents with ill intentions could partner with a few  bad-apple politicians or government officials — for the sake of symmetry, let’s pretend there are only a few — and use the available data for blackmail, coercion, or the kind of anonymous leaks that send political enemies scrambling for rehab or other cover.

As for the claim that no NSA agent could improperly access such data without others knowing about it, there is an obvious answer:  Edward Snowden.

Equally absurd is the assumption that the NSA would or could know about all misuse of data — or that the NSA’s assurances that no abuse has occurred are in any way meaningful.  Last time I checked, the reason blackmailers are often successful is that the victim cannot reveal the blackmailer without revealing whatever it was that made the victim blackmailable in the first place.

What?  500 phone calls last month to ‘Bunny’?  Sure,  I can explain that.  Yeah . . . that’s a nickname for my . . . uh . . . accountant.

So perhaps it’s time, despite the president’s assurances about the necessity of bulk data collection,  for the NSA to focus on targeted data-gathering and analysis instead, and to make sure the pertinent results are promptly shared with other law enforcement agencies.  After all, in piling up its mountainous haystack of all cyber data that was, is (and ever shall be, if the NSA prevails against its critics),  the NSA seems to have missed a few needles — in fact, every needle of late.

With more selective data and analysis, the NSA might, for instance,  have come across the Tsarnaev brothers perusing an online magazine for the do-it-yourselfer terrorist, checking out the helpful “How To” page for making pressure-cooker bombs.  Alerted law enforcement agencies might subsequently have flagged their purchases for the “ingredients,” and a pre-Boston Marathon arrest could and should have occurred.

Tragically, no such arrest was made. In today’s uber politically correct climate, it is apparently considered “Islamophobic”  to focus our data-culling on the places where terrorists tend to “hang out” — in both the cyber world and the real world.  Even though the Russians had earlier warned the FBI about the Tsarnaevs’ family ties to Chechen rebels and the elder brother’s six known visits to an Islamic militant in the Russian republic of Dagestan,  that info wasn’t considered compelling enough to tap not only into their particular data stream, but to actually pay attention to where they were swimming in tha stream. Instead, various Tsarnaevs were interviewed by various FBI agents.  The apparent gist:

Are you  terrorists?

No.

Oh.  OK.

How else to explain that shortly thereafter, when the brothers were learning to cook with nails and ball bearings, no one in the we-need-your-data-to-protect-you trade was paying attention?  (And we worry that Snowden has tipped off the bad guys??)

Likewise, our data-gatherers were also spectacularly incurious about  an Air Force major who ordered business cards online that described him as a  “Soldier for Allah,” and was email pals with radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki.  Before it became “insensitive” to keep tabs on folks who might, by virtue of behavior, travel patterns and cultural or religious affiliations, have a higher probability of being terrorists than, say,  little old ladies from Milwaukee flying to visit great grandchildren, this sort of behavior, like collecting recipes for pressure cooker bombs,  might have sparked some serious, and prolonged, investigation.

But we don’t have to go back that far to find an example of the bulk data collection FAIL. On Jan. 24, police in Pennsylvania arrested a Russian teenager whose suitcase housed  a “weapon of mass destruction” – a bomb.  The Penn State University student reportedly built it from online purchased parts, but the police weren’t searching through his belongings in response to an NSA tip about his online activity.  They weren’t looking for a bomb at all – they were looking for pot as part of a drug investigation, and serendipitously stumbled across his other hobby.  To the original drug charges, police have added “possessing a weapon of mass destruction, risking a catastrophe, possessing instruments of crime, prohibited offensive weapons, incendiary devices, [and] recklessly endangering another person.”

So here we have another young Russian buying his terrorist wares online, and yet the NSA didn’t flag him or his online purchases.

The question is, within the mega haystack of NSA data, how many other needles have escaped notice?  And why have so many of our politicians and talking heads failed to notice that the NSA hasn’t produced a single instance in which their massive data sweep has led to the prevention of an attack?  It’s time for lawmakers to take the recommendation of the PCLOB and shut down the bulk collection of all Americans’ data, an egregious violation of the Fourth Amendment, and for the NSA to focus its full attention on the sites and behavior patterns common to terrorists.  Sometimes less is more.

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If Only My Devices Came with a Switch Labeled “Cloaking Mode”

Fascinating interview here with cryptographer/security expert Bruce Schneier, who is helping The Guardian analyze the huge number of documents bequeathed it by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.  (Or traitor, if you prefer.  I don’t — not yet, anyway.) Schneier argues that the potential ramifications of the NSA’s all-seeing eye are far more disturbing than most citizens realize:

They’re not just spying on the bad guys, they’re deliberately weakening Internet security for everyone—including the good guys. It’s sheer folly to believe that only the NSA can exploit the vulnerabilities they create. Additionally, by eavesdropping on all Americans, they’re building the technical infrastructure for a police state.

We’re not there yet, but already we’ve learned that both the DEA and the IRS use NSA surveillance data in prosecutions and then lie about it in court. Power without accountability or oversight is dangerous to society at a very fundamental level.

Yup.  He’s also right that His Five Tips  for protecting ourselves from government intrusion are neither simple, nor practical.  I’ve read about the encryption hoops Laura Poitras had to jump through when first contacted by Snowden.  The security procedures he insisted on didn’t sound like something the average person has the money, patience or technical know-how  to do.  Heck, I’m so “average” I can’t even figure out how to get the “Recent Posts” widget to work in the sidebar of ChickCurmudgeon.  The fact that four widgets do appear properly — most of the time — is no sign of waning widget-impairment either; I have no clue why they’re working.

If interested, more reflections on the NSA’s attempts at Snowden-mitigation are in my blog posts “On Truth and Fantasies” and the third section of “Oh, What a Tangled Web They Weave . . . ” and include a link to the NYT profile of Poitras.  Is it possible a spy thriller based on her experiences isn’t already in the works?

These are scary times, but Schneier, who will be writing future articles on the material he’s been analyzing, has a wise practical suggestion:

The Internet has become essential to our lives, and it has been subverted into a gigantic surveillance platform. The solutions have to be political. The best advice for the average person is to agitate for political change.

I have one for him too, if he hasn’t already done it:  hire bodyguards.

On Truth and Fantasies

The government’s forensic investigation is wrestling with Snowden’s apparent ability to defeat safeguards established to monitor and deter people looking at information without proper permission, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the sensitive developments publicly.

The disclosure undermines the Obama administration’s assurances to Congress and the public that the NSA surveillance programs can’t be abused because its spying systems are so aggressively monitored and audited for oversight purposes: If Snowden could defeat the NSA’s own tripwires and internal burglar alarms, how many other employees or contractors could do the same? ~Goldman & Dozier

“The abuse is rampant and everyone is pretending that it’s never happened, and it couldn’t happen. … I know [there was abuse] because I had my hands on the papers for these sorts of things: They went after high-ranking military officers; they went after members of congress — Senate and the House — especially on the intelligence committees and the armed services committees, lawyers, law firms, judges, State Department officials, part of the White House, multinational companies, financial firms, NGOs, civil rights groups …”  ~ Russ Tice, NSA agent from 2002-2005, quoted by Michael Kelly.

***

Here’s the question  I would love to ask our top NSA officials and their government handlers,  if I could get them all in a room and lock the doors:  Are you guys even capable of  giving a straight, unparsed, and truthful answer to any question, or are you so far gone that Truth isn’t even a category you recognize?

It’s been obvious for some time that the NSA doesn’t know what Snowden has – their denials of specific surveillance capabilities and abuses have several times been followed by the release of purloined NSA documents which utterly discredit their denials. The fact that they’re backtracking now, albeit through anonymous officials,  shows only that their strategy of last resort is one of incremental honesty: tell the least amount of truth possible, and only when not doing so would be farcical.

In following the Snowden story and reading up on the NSA’s reaction to past whistleblowers, it’s clear a game is being played, and so far, the NSA has won every round.  If allegations of abuse survive past the instant excoriating of the source, unequivocal denials are made . . . . Don’t be silly — we don’t have the capability for that level of surveillance — you must be filling you head with too many of those Hollywood spy flicks.  The implication is clear: such questioners are fanciful and none too bright.  Then, should incontrovertible evidence surface, most recently thanks to a 29-year-old-high-school-dropout-loser, the narrative, typically  from “unnamed sources,” switches to, Well, of course the NSA spied on so & so or such & such.  Hellooo  — everybody knows that.  It’s an “open secret” and this IS a secret agency.  Where have you been all this time, you silly goose?

I wonder: do the rules of high school cliquedom ever really expire?  At any rate, reporters often fall for that ploy —  the desire not to look stupid or naive usually trumps the urge to be morally outraged at being  lied to.    If enough reporters show signs of persisting with their bothersome questions, the terrorism card is pulled out:   We’ve got real bad guys to catch, you know.  This is a serious business we’re in, and you’ll be mighty sorry if you distract us from that. Remember 9-11?  Now go and play elsewhere . . . So journalists tend to quit digging, underplay the abuse-of-power revelations in their stories  and pass that don’t-be-a-rube feeling onto their readers.

Going back to my little scenario at the beginning of this post: I’m not naïve enough to imagine I’d get an honest answer to my question, or even some decent squirming.  But if these allegations don’t go away, and the popping up of confirming documents becomes bothersome enough, I’m just rube enough to hope that  the NSA’s leaders might eventually opt for the most radical strategy of all – telling the whole truth, taking the consequences, and submitting to real oversight.

I know it’s a fantasy, but it’s not as if there isn’t a lot of that going around already.

Oh, What a Tangled Web They Weave, When Progressives Practice to Deceive . . .

. . . except that they’re not really practicing deception anymore; they’ve pretty much mastered it.

At any rate, hope my latest web wanderings find you in good spirits.  I’m just a tad twitchy, thanks to a spike in the usual number of tech glitches.  I’m about to switch over to my fourth  HTC One X “smartphone” – battery croaks in minutes, not hours — and since it’s integral, the only way to get a new battery is to get a new phone.   In the process of making sure my photos were backed up on my laptop, I updated my glitchy photo gallery software, which updated into not working at all.  Now I can see not one but two copies of every photo on my computer,  and I can edit them, but I can’t upload them to Facebook or anywhere else because my Windows Photo Gallery tells me that the photos I’m LOOKING AT belong to  files that don’t exist.  Charming.   Explain to me again how technology simplifies my life – or why it’s great to have a phone warranty that replaces one faulty device with a refurbished faulty device?

Anyway, since I can still read articles on this piece of junk, I’ve been wanting to share a few that struck me as interesting and off the mainstream radar.  This first piece, written by an intelligence analyst who studied communist propaganda, serves as a primer on political correctness, and explains how progressives have harnessed the latest research in social psychology to manipulate public opinion and behavior.  Not surprisingly, Obama’s pal Cass Sunstein shows up as one of the main “experts” in the field of “choice architecture.” The author’s analysis goes a long way toward explaining why The Great Uniter is always dividing.  His insults are not the result of frustration with his opposition– they’re part of the strategy of coercion.

It’s easy to observe these techniques in politics, universities, and journalism, but familiarity through repetition doesn’t make them any less foreign to my own mode of thinking, which is that Truth matters and that the business of persuasion is to help others see the truth about a particular issue.   If somewhere along the way I discover that my view is in error – i.e., out of alignment with reality, then my view ought to change to conform with reality.   At least, that’s my quaint Judeo-Christian way of looking at the world.  God is Truth, and if I’m His follower, then my allegiance is not just to Him, but to that which is true, to the extent that I can discern it.    These Sunstein disciples, on the other hand, seem to regard truth or reality as irrelevant– or,  to the extent that they have trouble concealing it, inconvenient.

I suppose the gist of the whole thing is that PC is about power-consolidation, NEVER about anything  so retro as mutual understanding or the free exchange of ideas.  If we miss that,  if we keep meekly defending ourselves against the constant accusations that we’re bigots or racists or hard-hearted,  . . . we’re toast.

***

The next piece, by Andrew McCarthy, speaks to the unreality of democracy or religious plurality co-existing with Sharia.  The current persecution of Christians in Egypt is an ugly illustration of that incompatibility.  I’ve bookmarked a site that is keeping a daily tally on the persecution of Christians in Egypt, and it contained this gem from Mohamed Saad al-Azhary:   “I strongly condemn the burning of churches for two reasons. 1) Whoever does this ruins the image of the protesters.   2) Who in their right mind would burn waste?”  (Gives new meaning to the term “charm offensive.”)   In the all-is-not-lost dept., the site also notes instances in which local Muslims have sided with Christians to protect their churches against the Muslim Brotherhood-of-Hate-and-Destruction.

***

Regarding the ongoing surveillance saga, there’s always more there there.  This tidbit from a story on the detention/interrogation of Glenn Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow for 9 hours — not to mention relieving him of all his electronics — caught my attention:

The Guardian disclosed Monday that British authorities have attempted to pressure the paper to turn over the material leaked by Snowden, or to destroy it. Rusbridger . . . said that at some point over the past month, security experts from the GCHQ intelligence agency oversaw the destruction of two hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, even though he pointed out to officials that the paper’s NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York.

As for MSM coverage, the NYT’s  in-depth, admiring portrait of Laura Poitras, who was the first journalist to make contact with Edward Snowden,  is the stuff of  intrigue flicks – and there’s no way one could read it without at least questioning the official line on Snowden.

This press release by Udall and Wyden on the NSA revelations caught my eye because they come awfully close, for two Democrats, to saying the executive branch cannot be trusted.  (And to be clear, I do think that intelligence organizations are supposed to have secrets.  I just think those secrets are supposed to be about our enemies, not about our law-abiding selves.)

It’s also been fun to watch President Bystander —  who never learns about anything unseemly going on in his administration until he opens his morning newspaper  (I mean really, can’t Eric-bug-‛em-Holder at least give him a 24-hour heads up?) — now in the awkward position of trying to convince us that he’s completely aware of whatever the NSA has been peeking into, and it doesn’t involve anything we might consider private . . . at least, not after the Sunstein crowd gets through with us.

This whole privacy issue has gotten utterly wacky.  I must get 3 or 4 privacy notices every week in the mail; multiply that across the land, and whole forests are being mowed down in the name of HIPAA  or other mandated disclosures that nobody reads.  At my doctor’s office, they have taken such extraordinary measures to make sure patients can’t overhear each other,  building a long curved desk divided by high partitions, that the marooned receptionists can’t see if any patients are in line, and we in the line can’t see how many desks feature actual receptionists.  To solve this problem,  pendant lamps were installed over each desk, and when a receptionist is ready to see a patient she turns the light on — except when she forgets to turn it on, or walks away and forgets to turn it off, or . . .  Meanwhile, with our medical records digitized, how long before some hacker and/or government hack has them?

Likewise, while Facebook continually tweaks its “privacy controls” and offers little tutorials on how to use them to “protect your privacy,”   we’re warned by tech gurus (and court precedents) that we should have NO expectation of privacy for anything we do on the internet, or anything we send to another person via a third party – e.g., a phone company or a piece of snail mail or an email or a Facebook message or a text or whatever.  Really?   Why keep “improving” our privacy settings if Google is scanning everything and the NSA is scooping it all up for storage in Utah?  And don’t even get me started on Google Glass . . .   For a great overview of recent surveillance revelations, check out John Fund’s column, in which he makes the case that conservatives need to rethink giving the NSA the benefit of the doubt:

So, I’ll close with a piece by Peggy Noonan, a conservative who’s been ahead of the skepticism curve.  Like me, she seems to believe that ferreting out terrorist plots and protecting law-abiding citizens from unlawful intrusion are not mutually exclusive endeavors.   Genuine oversight  is required – not just soothing reassurances for the dupes from the Prevaricator-in-Chief.

If you read Noonan, I think you’ll see the connection between the manufacturing of “availability cascades” to shift public policy, and the Obama campaign’s number crunchers who analyzed massive data sets in order to micro-target specific voter groups.    If the NSA is doing what Snowden and others claim it is – there’s no way they’ll be able to leave that ultimate data base unsifted when it comes to winning election campaigns or pushing controversial agendas.  The ends will justify the means – they always do with this crowd.

Of course, if the Utah storage computers were being built to the same specs as my current phone, I’d be far less worried . . .