Invasive view into American’s data too easy at the NSA

the-nsa-trained-edward-snowden-to-be-an-elite-hackerIn an interview with ABCNews, the reporter that initially made public information about the National Security Agency’s true surveillance powers said that even the lowest-level NSA analyst at the data collection agency has virtually unrestricted access to trillions of telephone calls and emails from the American people.

Guardian Reporter Glenn Greenwald said that analysts use very simple “supermarket-like” screens that perform powerful and wide-reaching searches based on telephone numbers, email or IP addresses for any data that the NSA has managed to collect.  “It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.”

Greenwald mentioned that although so-called FISA legal restrictions supposedly constrain what analysts search for, no real technical mechanism exists that would prevent any search.  “And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst,” he said.

Although the NSA strongly denies such easy availability of data – and even the tracking of some of it – top secret security documents revealed (read: Snowden) last week suggest that the NSA not only tracks telephone calls and emails, but tracks absolutely everything sent over the wires of the Internet’s transnational fiber optic lines.

Greenwald wants the NSA to respond to these accusations when they testify before the Senate on Wednesday and flatly deny the existence of these described programs in front of Congress and the American people.

Top secret NSA slide reveals more data collection mechanisms

Americans recently learned about the PRISM program run by the National Security Agency that collects data – knowingly or unknowingly – from some of the largest Internet and telecommunications providers in the United States.  A newly uncovered slide from an NSA document, however, reveals yet another mechanism by which the agency collects data.

The slide, classified “TOP SECRET//SI//ORCON//NOFORN”, details both the PRISM program and so-called “Upstream” capabilities where the agency taps into high-capacity transnational fiber optic lines that run under the ocean.  It instructs the intelligence analyst to use both mechanism when spying on Americans.  The slide also includes circles that may suggest collection points, but details regarding the capabilities and facilities that enable the collection remain unclear.

What is clear, however, is how sophisticated our government’s network of surveillance and data collection mechanisms really are.  No wonder our government just finished construction on a large NSA data processing center near Camp Williams, Utah, designed to collect and store trillions of terabytes of data on the American people.

If you like the surveillance state, you’ll love E-Verify

From massive NSA spying, to IRS targeting of the administration’s political opponents, to collection and sharing of our health care information as part of Obamacare, it seems every day we learn of another assault on our privacy. Sadly, this week the Senate took another significant, if little-noticed, step toward creating an authoritarian surveillance state. Buried in the immigration bill is a national identification system called mandatory E-Verify.

The Senate did not spend much time discussing E-Verify, and what little discussion took place was mostly bipartisan praise for its effectiveness as a tool for preventing illegal immigrants from obtaining employment. It is a tragedy that mandatory E-Verify is not receiving more attention, as it will impact nearly every American’s privacy and liberty.

The mandatory E-Verify system requires Americans to carry a “tamper-proof” social security card. Before they can legally begin a job, American citizens will have to show the card to their prospective employer, who will then have to verify their identity and eligibility to hold a job in the US by running the information through the newly-created federal E-Verify database. The database will contain photographs taken from passport files and state driver’s licenses. The law gives federal bureaucrats broad discretion in adding other “biometric” identifiers to the database. It also gives the bureaucracy broad authority to determine what features the “tamper proof” card should contain.

Regardless of one’s views on immigration, the idea that we should have to ask permission from the federal government before taking a job ought to be offensive to all Americans. Under this system, many Americans will be denied the opportunity for work. The E-Verify database will falsely identify thousands as “ineligible,” forcing many to lose job opportunities while challenging government computer inaccuracies. E-Verify will also impose additional compliance costs on American businesses, at a time when they are struggling with Obamacare implementation and other regulations.

According to David Bier of Competitive Enterprise Institute, there is nothing stopping the use of E-Verify for purposes unrelated to work verification, and these expanded uses could be authorized by agency rule-making or executive order. So it is not inconceivable that, should this bill pass, the day may come when you are not be able to board an airplane or exercise your second amendment rights without being run through the E-Verify database. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the personal health care information that will soon be collected by the IRS and shared with other federal agencies as part of Obamacare will also be linked to the E-Verify system.

Those who dismiss these concerns as paranoid should consider that the same charges were leveled at those who warned that the PATRIOT Act could lead to the government collecting our phone records and spying on our Internet usage. Just as the PATRIOT Act was only supposed to be used against terrorists but is now used to bypass constitutional protections in matters having noting to do with terrorism or national security, the national ID/mandatory E-Verify database will not only be used to prevent illegal immigrants from gaining employment. Instead, it will eventually be used as another tool to monitor and control the American people.

The recent revelations of the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans, plus recent stories of IRS targeting Tea Party and similar groups for special scrutiny, demonstrates the dangers of trusting government with this type of power. Creation of a federal database with photos and possibly other “biometric” information about American citizens is a great leap forward for the surveillance state. All Americans who still care about limited government and individual liberty should strongly oppose E-Verify.

Rushing debate on NSA warrantless spying

As I write, the Senate is gathering in an unusual special session to debate the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, which I discussed in a recent Cato podcast. Unfortunately, as Sen. Ron Wyden pointed out in opening the discussion, this sparsely-attended holiday session is likely to be the only full floor debate on sweeping surveillance legislation that has been in force for four years already (during which we know it has already been used unconstitutionally), and is all but certain to be renewed for another five. That’s especially disturbing given that, when the House debated the law back in September, its strongest supporters revealed themselves to be profoundly confused about what the law does, and just how much warrantless spying on the communications of American citizens it permits, despite being nominally restricted to “foreign targets.”

Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a post up sounding the Klaxon to warn of dire consequences if the Senate fails to renew the law without substantial changes. Hearteningly, even Heritage seems to be comfortable with proposed reforms requiring the secret FISA Court to publish declassified versions of substantial interpretations of the statute, so we are not effectively living under a body of secret law.  But their vague claim that some amendments would “substantially change the nature of the legislation” doesn’t really hold up.

Here’s a rundown of amendments that will be proposed. With the exception of a genuinely radical one offered by Sen. Rand Paul—proposing that the Fourth Amendment applies to our digital records and communications even when they’re stored by an Internet company—they’re all very mild, utterly common sense tweaks. One offered by Sen. Pat Leahy would extend the FAA for three years rather than five, in hopes that we might actually have a more substantial debate about this incredible spying power soon. Sen. Jeff Merkley is offering the one mentioned above, ensuring that we’re not living under secret law.

Finally, Sen. Wyden has two important amendments. One would require the NSA to produce a rough estimate of how many Americans’ communications are intercepted under the sweeping “vacuum cleaner” style programs authorized by FAA, which they have thus far refused to do, probably in part because the number would be distressingly high.  A second would prohibit “backdoor searches” targeting Americans.  The idea here is that precisely because warrantless FISA surveillance is so sweeping, and large numbers of Americans’ communications are likely to end up in the NSA database even if foreign groups are in theory the “target” of surveillance—as we know has already happened on a large scale—it becomes possible to effectively “target” Americans simply by entering their names or other identifying information in searches of the database.  That’s obviously a way of circumventing the law’s ban on “reverse targeting” that is really meant to spy on Americans under authority nominally aimed at foreigners. Wyden’s amendment would simply require an individualized FISA warrant when agents want to search their vast communications database for a particular American’s information. The NSA has objected to the term “backdoor searches” and the characterization of this process as a “loophole” in the law—but they certainly haven’t denied that the law as written allows them to do this, and have resisted this effort to prohibit it. Yet if, as supporters insist, this is really a law aimed at foreigners rather than Americans, surely such a requirement should be a no-brainer.

Amendments aside, it’s worth noting that nothing dire would happen if the law expired for a while. Programmatic surveillance authorizations under the law—covering entire “categories” of surveillance targets rather than particular people—last for a year, and would continue unmolested if the law lapsed. As we now know, claims made in 2008 about immediate problems arising from the expiration of the predecessor to the FAA were highly misleading, and one suspects deliberately so. We also know that the hyperbolic claims about the value of the initial, extralegal warrantless wiretap program didn’t hold up to scrutiny once the Inspectors General got around to auditing the program. There’s no realistic chance the Senate is going to let this legislation expire but, Mayan calendar notwithstanding, the world would not end if it did.

Given that this law is going to be renewed, ask yourself: Aren’t the checks discussed above just common sense? Shouldn’t we know what the laws we live under actually mean, as interpreted by the courts?  Shouldn’t we know approximately how many Americans are being secretly spied on by the government? If a surveillance program is, in principle, supposed to be exclusively aimed at foreigners, then shouldn’t a warrant be required before  that program can be explicitly and deliberately used to read the e-mails of Americans? It is hard to imagine how anyone could oppose any of these principles, whether or not they approve of the FISA Amendments Act as a whole. If our friends at Heritage—or more to the point, members of the Senate—do oppose any of these, we should at least ask for a convincing explanation of why, not a vague suggestion that we’re all in danger unless we shut up and embrace the status quo.

Originally published at http://www.cato.org/blog/senates-rushed-debate-nsa-spying-powers.