Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Noted with boredom: the smoking gun on the wiretapping scandal

Posted by Charles II on June 6, 2013

Not that we shouldn’t be shocked and angry.

So, DemocracyNow covered the story in 2005, and I quoted them here:

The NSA, on the other hand, does it wholesale, where they take entire streams of communications coming down from satellites, which can contain millions of communications… So that’s emails, faxes, telephone calls, cellular calls and so forth….Now, they’ve admitted it’s the wiretapping and investigation of people within the United States, domestic calls to domestic calls.

And today, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

Jessalyn Radack, a director at the Government Accountability Project, has a pretty good summary of the whistleblowers who have been trying to protect Americans from this wildly illegal and unconstitutional program.

Among Washington Democrats, there have been two who have responded with concern: Mark Udall and Ron Wyden. Obama thinks he’s made mass wiretapping legal because he gets rubberstamp warrants. But surely, to qualify as a warrant, a judicial determination has to be more specific than everybody. And the usual clods, like Dianne Feinstein, are defending this massive intrusion into our lives by saying, all they are collecting is the “metadata”: who contacts who, when, by what means, and what public documents they look at. But of course, someone incompetent or of ill intent can use that metadata to do great harm to the innocent.

Scorecard: 280 million Americans wiretapped. According to Republican Mike Rogers, exactly one terrorist attack prevented. How many innocent people suffered bad consequences, and what were those consequences? Is the NSA warehousing the content of the calls even if they don’t initially listen in (answer: almost certainly yes)? And what is the potential for abuse if another Richard Nixon gains power?

Those are the questions that ought to be asked.

Anyway, not to take anything away from Glenn Greenwald or the brave people who leaked this. It’s just that the American people seem to be deaf to issues like this. It’s they, not I, who have noted these depredations against the Constitution with boredom.

12 Responses to “Noted with boredom: the smoking gun on the wiretapping scandal”

  1. jo6pac said

    who have noted these depredations against the Constitution with boredom.

    I pretty sure most of the sheeple don’t even know what’s the Constitution is about and we have been told so long from every pundit that we have to give up our rights to catch the bad guys. I doubt but hope the sheeple wake up to the fact that it’s Amerikan citizens that are the so called bad guys. The so called liberal media who just realized that they were being spied on by the so called govt. of the people. Then the curse of the pundit types is they work for the owners of Amerika, so if you want to eat you just roll over and lie.

    • Charles II said

      I’m always amazed by how much simple people know about right and wrong, Jo. Yes, many people have given in to fear. But many more have this deep, intrinsic sense that we must not do so.

      As for bad guys, Al Qaeda are bad guys. So was Saddam Hussein, and Stalin’s USSR, and most of the bogeymen we have faced in the past. The real problem, ever since the Cold War, has been that our leaders think we need to be as evil as our opponents. They haven’t quite understood that what makes us strong is our idealism. Our national decline is largely due to an abandonment of our finest values. That’s what leads us into wars of greed, like Iraq and Libya. That’s what leads us into erecting totalitarian systems like the wiretapping reported above.

      • Stormcrow said

        Our national decline is largely due to an abandonment of our finest values.

        I really don’t think so.

        Can you hand me one single example of a cultural collapse whose root cause can clearly be ascribed to “abandonment of values”?

        Of course, that’s a rhetorical question.

        I’ve spent quite a bit of quality time reading about civilizational reverses and collapses over the last 5 decades. When the available data supports a proposed root cause, it always turns out to be something far more mundane.

        When we see “abandonment of values”, it appears as a consequence.

      • Charles II said

        I’ll give you the point that cause and effect are sometimes difficult to dissect.

        But consider that the United States is spending too much on military adventures and too little on economic development. It has run large trade deficits because it imports so much oil, and now manufactured goods. These factors combined put extraordinary pressures on the economy. The US has responded by lowering wages in real terms. This creates more social strain. And so on.

        Now, why exactly did we get so heavily reliant on military means and so dependent on oil politics? Well, to some degree, we turned to military means because we were so successful at them in World War II. And, again due to the WW II experience, we believed the myth that oil was and always would be essential to a modern industrial economy. Therefore, control of oil became the primary economic means by which we hoped to defeat communism.

        But this theory didn’t really work. We were stymied militarily in Korea and Vietnam. The USSR had plenty of oil, which it used to keep Cuba out of the economic vise that the US tried to impose. At some point, rational planners would have recognized that our strategy was failing. Indeed, by 1960, our leaders believed that communism was economically so much more efficient than capitalism that they would outgrow us. Here were clear (if, in the case of economic growth, incorrect) signs that our military/oil strategy was failing. By contrast, wherever the Peace Corps went, the US gained influence.

        But by that time, military spending and oil had become politically so powerful that they could no longer be contained.

        I see the means by which this state of affairs was reached as being primarily one of a change of values. In World War II, we leveraged our military power through our alliances, particularly with the USSR. Those alliances did not come about in a vacuum. They were possible because most Americans believed that we would contain communism through the force of our ideas, not through coercive force. It was the belief in the force of our ideas that led to the racial/gender/environmental reforms of the 1960s and early 1970s, reforms that have been the only real source of re-energizing American society in the last half century. It is the belief in the force of our ideas that keeps people like you and me from collapsing in total cynicism at the betrayals of neo-liberalism.

        So, thanks, but–absent any evidence that we ran short of critical resources or suffered a crippling epidemic or were defeated by a more powerful military–I like my interpretation.

  2. Dickeylee said

    NSA built over 1 million sq ft of space for data storage/mainframes underground in Utah…thats a LOT of data storage.

    • Charles II said

      Exactly, DL.

      And although it might not be immediately apparent, there’s a whole new level of danger associated with the storage of data.

      Suppose there is someone who does something that someone in the government doesn’t like. For example, Franklin Spinney or Bradley Manning. Instead of having to go out and build a case against the person, whoever is sore can go back through every conversation, e-mail, web browsing session etc. to construct a frame.

      The reason that frame-ups often fail–as the attempt to convict Manning of violating the Espionage Act is failing– is because the frame-up doesn’t have enough data to make it convincing. But if the person building the frame can listen to every word, even ones of which we repent, they can inevitably find something against them How many of us, for example, have started to type, “I would like to shoot that son-of-a-b….h,” then been ashamed of ourselves, and erased it.

      But with keylog-level information (and this is what was alleged is being collected by whoever released the latest information), everyone can be made to look guilty.

  3. David Simon (creator of The Wire and a former reporter who worked the police beat in Baltimore) weighs in with a minority report:

    We Are Shocked, Shocked…

    The comments thread is filled with thoughtful and worthwhile remarks on both sides of the issue. (And Simon is responding to those ones.)

    Here’s a taste of the article itself (kept short for fair-use considerations):

    You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal court order which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame.

    Nope. Nothing of the kind. Though apparently, the U.K.’s Guardian, which broke this faux-scandal, is unrelenting in its desire to scale the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole. Consider this from Glenn Greenwald, the author of the piece: “What this court order does that makes it so striking is that it’s not directed at any individual…it’s collecting the phone records of every single customer of Verizon business and finding out every single call they’ve made…it’s indiscriminate and it’s sweeping.”

    Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.

    Allow for a comparable example, dating to the early 1980s in a place called Baltimore, Maryland….

    SImon then goes on to describe how the Baltimore PD, in a bid to go after drug dealers, put call loggers on pay phones to keep track of which phones were getting calls from various phone numbers. It wasn’t listening to the calls, much less recording them — just logging the numbers and the times called. It was only after certain patterns had been detected that the BPD asked a judge for permission to wiretap some numbers.

    In Simon’s view, that, apparently, is similar to what NSA is doing with Verizon’s data.

    • Stormcrow said

      I continue to wonder about the feasibility of a monitoring system that ingests as much data as PRISM is purported to do. I suspect, though of course I cannot prove, that scaling issues would be the single worst technical problem such a project would face.

      I spent much of the last 2.5 years working with the data volume generated, almost in its entirety, by MS Event Log systems only on the servers only, by the internal network of a fairly major Federal agency. Somewhere between 10K and 20K instances of MS Windows Server. We didn’t deal with desktop system logs; that’d kick the data volume into complete infeasibility.

      It was a continuing and very painful multi-thousand terabyte PITA just to house this, let alone sift it for evidence of external attack and internal misuse. Running 5-10 of the sort of SQL queries you’d want to run for that purpose would slow the system to a crawl. And you’d need 20-30 to do a reasonably thorough job.

      The sorts of systems that are used for this purpose are called SIEM systems in the security community. Just getting the funding for a modest one is a major effort.

      A mere $100K won’t buy you more than a “toy” system.

      You’d need perhaps $10M for a system that you could use to oversee 50K-100K seats of Windows client systems and 20K instances of Windows Server. That’s just installation cost: hardware + configuration + training.

      You’d also need a CSIRT team; I’d guess about 150K/head when you add support costs to payroll. These days, at least one of them would have to be a full-time forensics specialist. Not just hard drive evidence, but malware forensics. These people don’t grow on trees.

      And I’m just talking about 50,000 to 100,000 peoples’ worth of traffic, through no more than 5 Internet Access Points.

      You see where I’m going with this?

      I certainly believe the Obama administration would build something like PRISM if they could; Constitution be damned.

      But I’m not convinced they’d get what they were promised.

      • Charles II said

        Stormcrow, meet Bluffdale.

        Google supposedly has a fraction of an exabyte of storage, which it is able to search almost instantaneously for many thousands of simultaneous users. The Bluffdale site is capable of storing about 1 million times as much data as is searchable on Google. Apparently, they are planning to store it and wait for processing capacity to catch up.

        And they have tens of billions of dollars to play with.

    • Charles II said

      PW, I believe Simon is wrong. The analogy would be to put a pen trace on all the pay phones, but also record all the calls. Then, when probable cause is discerned from the patterns of calling, go back and listen to calls/e-mails that have already been recorded. There are several lines of evidence for believing this. The first is the sheer scale of the Bluffdale facility. The second is that, as I understand it, some of the information used to identify the Boston bombers came from phone/e-mail conversations that had occurred before the bombing. Was this just the metadata or did it include the conversation? What I heard was that it seemed as if it must include the conversation?

      Obviously, we don’t know for sure. However, nothing that I have read conflicts with the notion that they capture the entire record of a conversation, but only sift through the metadata… until they decide to go into the full record.

      It’s my prediction that they are recording everything. But there’s no hard evidence for that. Yet.

      • You should post that on Simon’s site.

      • Charles II said

        Comments are closed.

        But even if they were open, I’m not sure I could convince anyone with the hard evidence that is out there. All one can say is that what is known does not add up if all they are doing is storing pen register data. The phone companies already do that.

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